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Every once in awhile a show comes along that grips you from start to finish; and the Westcoast Black Theatre Company’s latest show “In the Heights,” which opened October 14th, was a tour de force production exploding with heart.
Before the show began, Nate Jacobs, Founder and Artistic Director, explained that years ago he couldn’t afford to go to Broadway to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakout production “In the Heights,” but that the Latin inspired musical that blends rap with a classical musical theater tradition has long been on his radar. Since then WBTT has established itself as one of the most important presenting organizations on the Gulf Coast.
I remember when “In the Heights” was a huge sensation off-Broadway during my last summer living in Manhattan, but much like its forbearer “Rent,” a decade earlier, and “Hamilton,” Miranda’s current production, perhaps the most coveted Broadway ticket of all time, occasionally something strikes New York audiences in such a big way that tickets become nearly impossible to get. Wunderkind Miranda has captured lightning in a bottle twice, and while he continues to be the toast of Broadway, it is so exciting to see what Jacobs, Jim Weaver (guest director and choreographer), and Michael Mendez (Usnavi) have achieved mounting the four-time Tony award winning production on WBTT’s intimate 10th Street stage.
Jacobs also explained that WBTT regular Mendez, who hails from the Dominican Republic, has been after Jacobs to do this show, which Jacobs described as an important step for the company in expanding its exploration of the black experience with its first primarily Latinx-focused production. It is clear why Mendez wanted to do this show, because the role of Usnavi, the purveyor of coffee and lotto tickets in Washington Heights, is a role he was born to play. Mendez is the heart and soul of the production narrating the action and setting the scene of his life as the son of immigrants who came here to give him a better life but died when he was still very young. Abuela Claudia (Maite Uzal) raised him in the barrio; and he in turn helps raise his younger cousin, the endlessly charming Sonny, played to great effect by Troy D. Wallace.
In a stunning WBTT debut, Nina Negron, just coming off a run as various Disney princesses on a Disney cruise line, has a voice both sonorously and emotionally important to the production as Nina Rosario, the young princess of the barrio who “got out” for a short stint at Stanford University. She personifies all the stresses put on second-generation young people who are raised to exceed their parents and live the American dream. Much of the plot revolves around her return to the Heights after dropping out of school unable to balance the academic and financial pressures of the prestigious and costly university.
In a wonderful pairing, Benny, played by Brian L. Boyd, Nina’s father’s protégé, woos her while balancing his own aspirations as a young entrepreneur. The duets sung by Negron and Boyd are so moving; and Boyd, who has performed in several previous productions, is an extremely capable leading man who really came into his own in complemented by Negron’s compelling performance. I look forward to seeing what else Boyd has in store on the WBTT stage.
Marissa Buchheit, also making her WBTT debut, was a captivating Vanessa, a demanding role requiring a true triple threat. Buchheit did an excellent job pulling us into the experience of Vanessa’s struggles to escape her heavy drinking mother’s home and get her own studio apartment. The trio of hairdressers who work next door to Usnavi’s bodega include Vanessa, Daniela, played by the immensely talented Renata Eastlick, and the adorable faith spouting Carla (Khadija Sallet) who together keep the small community up-to-date with gossip while cutting, coloring, and extending their hair.
Also notable were Emily Barnash, the strong-willed so-called dictator of the Rosario family, who brought her exceptional operatic voice to the WBTT as well as Matthew Curtis as Kevin Rosario whose frequently misguided yet powerful love for his accomplished daughter helped propel the story forward. Although Uzal as Claudia has an incredible voice and helped create the imagery of her native Cuba in two major numbers, the fact that she was such a young actress made her less believable in the grandmother role. The ensemble players, including the exceptional dancer Chakara Rose, Raleigh Mosely II (Graffiti Pete), and Michael Kinsey (Piragua Guy) highlighted Weaver's impressive choreography, which helped situate us in the heights creating a tenable and spirited mood on stage throughout the production.
This show is especially important, because as Weaver states in his director’s notes, “it presents universally relatable truths about growth and acceptance that connect to all who see it.” The theme of having a place to call home providing the strings that enable us to fly is so significant in a country that is deeply divided on cultural fault lines. A particularly prescient part of the show involves a major blackout in the heights. The cast use their cell phones to illuminate the stage as they sing “we are powerless” both literally and figuratively. Held captive by Con Edison for the entire second act, the neighborhood is left without electricity, and it was impossible not to draw comparisons with the current plight of Puerto Rico similarly left powerless to manage in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
As usual, WBTT pulls off a socially relevant and poignantly heart-wrenching production with the style and warmth that is their signature. Although “The Color Purple” a few seasons ago reigned supreme for me, “In the Heights” was probably WBTT’s finest production yet demonstrating an incredible range and a remarkable skill for producing world-class productions in an intimate setting.