In the Heights was a Broadway sensation when it debuted in 2008, and it won four Tony Awards shortly afterward. It’s fresh story that focuses on a Dominican teenager (Nina) who returns to Washington Heights after her first year away at college, and how various members of the the first- and second-generation immigrant community grapple with multiple definitions of home. The score, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, incorporates rap, hip-hop and pop, and some pats of the show are in Spanish (or Spanglish) — which all combines to make for an incredibly novel, current, moving musical theater experience.
Midtown Travels to Modern ‘Heights’
HE SAID: If people are tired of seeing the same old shows, this is the freshest musical to hit the stage in a long time. We have seen rock musicals, but never have we seen a musical that utilized intricate rap lyrics blended with latin/jazz orchestrations to guide the way through a story. It’s the cutting edge. It’s energetic and infectious. But most importantly, while it tells the story of a specific locale in New York and deals with members of the latin culture, it ultimately tells a story of people trying to find their way in life and place to call home – an idea that we can all recognize and connect with.
SHE SAID: We saw this show on Broadway and on tour, and it’s definitely high up on my list of new musicals that have come out in the past decade. We were excited to see a regional premiere of the show. We suspected (and hoped) that the strong community message would be well-transmitted by a regional production, but we were curious how the challenging music and demand for actors to play characters in a wide variety of ethnicities and ages would play out without the benefit of Broadway- and national tour- level resources. Ultimately, I felt that the production at Midtown was successful in telling the compelling story, although unfortunately there were several examples of individual examples of missed opportunities.
Mixed Performances Find Stand-Out in Chiarello
HE SAID: Until opening night, the only casts Coloradans have seen of the show have been on Broadway or Broadway tours – so people are especially interested who has been selected to fill those shoes. Alyssa Chiarello as Vanessa steals the show by providing the most fully developed character in the production. Her voice soars on challenging solos and her acting choices bring great dynamics to her arch throughout the story. Alyssa Gomez, as Nina, has an incredible singing voice, as well, but a freer physicality in her first number “Breathe” would help communicate her story more completely. The rest of the leading performances struggled with consistently providing a natural fit in the rapped portions, while others had pitch issues in the more musical numbers.The ensemble vocals in “Alabanza” were so incredibly splendid I was left wondering where that beautifully robust sound was throughout the rest of the piece – especially in numbers like “96,000” and “Carnaval del Barrio” where rhythm and volume appeared to be issues for the cast and band alike.
SHE SAID: Chiarello as Vanessa is hands down the strongest link in this interwoven, ensemble piece– I enjoyed everything she did onstage. Deb Note-Farwell as Abuela Claudia gave one of the most inexplicably endearing performances I’ve ever experienced. While parts of her vocals were strong, other parts were noticeably off-pitch, but she had such a powerful, visible connection to the song that I instantly forgave her technical errors. The other adults, Alexander Casanovas as Kevin and Jasmine Romero as Camila (Nina’s parents) also gave uneven performances, with some good acting moments and some good singing moments, but few moments where the two aligned as they should. A few of those playing smaller roles were quite strong — most noticeably Jodi Watson as the hilarious Carla and Hector Flores Jr. as the Piragua Guy.
Design and Music Hit and Miss
HE SAID: In the same uneven way the orchestra for the production felt light at times and sizzled in others, all of the production elements had hit and miss moments. The scenic design was interesting and served the story well, but the second story space could have been used more consistently to help create some more dynamics in the their stage pictures. Once again, Midtown has chosen to leave a black backdrop behind their set – which left the space feeling dark and prevented me from feeling the intense heat that is a critical part of the environment for the characters. That said, the dark backdrop helped with their clever way of executing the fireworks at the end of the first act.
SHE SAID: I might be missing the part of my brain that detects the color of a backdrop, because even after the black background in Hairspray was pointed out to me, I didn’t notice it in this production. I thought for the most part, that the rest of the set worked quite well to set the scene. It created just enough playing space, although I did wish that the counter in Usnavi’s store didn’t need to move up and downstage quite so often. The costumes by Brittni Girard were very well done, appropriate for the show and fun to look at. I also thought that Rogelio Douglas Jr.’s choreography was interesting, appropriate and well-executed, and was impressed with the versatility of the ensemble dancers.
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Midtown Shows Heart in Their ‘Heights’
THEY SAID: A lot of the fresh, heartfelt notes in this Broadway hit are carried through this state premiere at Midtown Arts Center. There are also some noticeable misses, including a few slip-ups in executing the tricky score. If you think that dinner theater can only serve up tired versions of Annie and Oklahoma!, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this contemporary, youthful offering. The cast has some mixed performances but has one truly stand-out performance that was exciting to see. The heart of this touching community-based story is strong with this production, which goes a long way to counter some of the difficulties they face in delivering the piece.