By Michele Markarian
In the Heights. Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Book Quiara Alegria Hudes. Directed by Rachel Bertone. Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre, 200 The Riverway, Boston, MA, through November 19.
I don’t know if anyone remembers watching the 2008 Tony awards, but the winner of that year’s Best Musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda, rapped his acceptance speech. “What an odd little guy”, I thought, with a mixture of admiration and disdain (even for the Tonys, it was an unusual form of acceptance speech). I never felt compelled to see “In the Heights”, but given the quality of Wheelock Family Theatre’s musical productions, I figured, why not? This wonderful show, expertly directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone, does not disappoint.
“In the Heights”, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakthrough musical, centers around a neighborhood in Washington Heights, Manhattan, where Miranda grew up. Usnavi (Diego Klock-Perez) runs a bodega with his younger cousin, Sonny (Diego Guevara). Usnavi has a crush on the beautiful Vanessa (Iliana Garcia), a woman Usnavi is too shy to ask for a date (much like Miranda’s early crush on his own real-life girlfriend and later wife, also named Vanessa). Nina (Laura Lebron Rojas), the neighborhood girl who made good by winning a full scholarship to Stanford, has come home for the summer with some bad news for her parents, Kevin (Luis Negron) and Camila (Rosi Amador). Her parents run a car service, Rosario’s, where Benny (Darren Bunch) works as a driver and dispatcher. Benny and Nina have eyes for each other, but Kevin is not convinced Benny is good enough for his only daughter. The neighborhood is peppered with characters: Graffiti Pete (David Alea), hair salon owner Daniela (Yewande O. Odetoyinho) and her assistant, Carla (Kira Troilo), and piragua vendor Piragua Guy (Tony Castellanos). But the heart of the neighborhood is Abuela Claudia (Johanna Carlisle Zepeda) who, although not the real grandmother of anybody, acts as one, making sure Usnavi is fed, keeping an eye on the comings and goings of all of the residents, and collecting mementos of everyone’s accomplishments.
Like “Hamilton”, themes of home and belonging loom large. Usnavi is an orphan whose parents died shortly after coming to the United States (the origin of his name, which I won’t give away, is very funny). Vanessa’s mom is a drunk. Abuela Claudia was taken from her home in the Caribbean. All of them rely on each other for familial support. When Abuela Claudia wins the lottery, she wants to split the modest jackpot with Usnavi and Sonny. It is a community that cares deeply about one another, a moving and refreshing message given the times we’re living in.
The talent of this cast is tremendous, and the corps de spirit strong. Klock-Perez makes a compelling Usnavi, giving him weight and responsibility. He works well against the charismatic Guevara, whose Sonny is more light-hearted. Rojas is touching as Nina, the star of the neighborhood who’s fallen. She and the appealing Bunch harmonize beautifully, as do the magnetic Odetoyinbo and her assistant, the bubbly Troilo. The dancing in the show is impressive, with Garcia a noticeable standout. Zepeda’s Abuela Claudia seems unassuming until she opens her mouth to sing – what a voice on this woman! Amazing.
Jenna McFarland Lord’s multi-level set has the look and feel of a hot summer street in the city and Marian Bertone’s costumes are authentic to the characters. “In the Heights” is sprinkled with Spanish phrases that are easy enough to understand and in doing so, make you proud to be Latino or Latina, if only for a few hours. For more info, go to: https://wheelockfamilytheatre.org/