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A CurtainUp Westchester Review
In the Heights

Me and my cousin running just another dime a dozen
Mom-and-pop stop-and-shop
And, oh my God, it’s getting too damn hot
Like my man Cole Porter said
People come through for a few cold waters
And a lottery ticket – just a part of the routine
Everybody’s got a job
Everybody’s got a dream
In the Heights
A scene from In the Heights(Photo: Photos by John Vecchiolla)
The forces of nature, in the form of a blizzard, may have delayed the opening, but the forces of talent responded in equal measure on Wednesday night when In the Heights opened at the Westchester Broadway Theatre. Without doubt, the most vibrant production in many moons at this popular, Elmsford, New York, dinner theater, Heights is a musical paean to friendship, family and neighborhood. It’s also one of the most exuberant celebrations of dance since West Side Story.

Winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestration, this show bursts at the seams with energy and emotion set to rhythms with a rap-Latin-salsa beat. Not since Jerome Robbins' work have I seen such exciting, Latin infused choreography – and the modern, hip hop moves Andy Blankenbuehler devised are just are icing on the cake.

His original, dynamic choreography has been faithfully recreated by Morgan Marcell and the show could have been run on that voltage alone. Director John Fanelli has been equally faithful to the emotional, personal elements in the story which weaves tales of love, ambition, pride and coming of age into a mosaic of life among the inhabitants of a colorful New York City neighborhood on the eve of the 4th of July.

Steve Loftus has provided an atmospheric set and Maria Castaldo's costumes are as amusingly individual as are the characters. Andrew Gmoser's lighting is often as fleet as the dancers feet. Set in the multi-racial, multi-ethnic enclave of upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights, composer-lyricist Lin Manuel Miranda and book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes have fashioned a contemporary version of the bluebird fairy tale, in which happiness is found, ultimately, in one’s own backyard.

Painting the neighborhood on a broad canvas effectively catches a colorful range of characters - even if it limits the various threads of the plot to brief moments in the spotlight. Front and center is the character Usnavi (the name is a joke worth learning about first hand), an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who runs a small bodega where the locals stop for café a leche and a lottery ticket. Dreams are an important part of the lives of the denizens of this tightly knit community. Someone sings with a sigh: “when the world was just a subway stop away.”

The composer Miranda played Usnavi in the original production and he was a dazzling sparkplug for the show’s dynamic engine. Perry Young has the part at WBT and he is a worthy successor, delivering the goods with bouncy, infectious cheer.

Arielle Jacobs, also a veteran of the Broadway company, plays the beautiful, bright Nina, a dropout from Stamford University. Her disappointed parents, Kevin (Benjamin Perez) and Camila (Nicole Paloma Sarro), have sacrificed to pay for her college education and her opportunity to maybe “move downtown” to the affluent part of Manhattan. Jacobs has a strong, sweet soprano which makes the semi-ballads of the score soar.

Benny (Fayte), who works for Nina’s father in the local car rental company, is in love with Nina even though he believes he is beneath her. Fayte has a powerful voice with which to register his love sick emotions but his macho swagger works again the young man’s restrained, if charismatic, character.

Also on the scene are Usnavi’s impish cousin Sonny, pertly played by Greg Laucella, and his grandmother Abuela Claudia (Christina Aranda) who shares with Usnavi a desire to return in glory to the Dominican Republic. Aranda’s powerful rendering of “Paciencia y Fe” (“Patience and Faith”) earned huge applause. A comic trio of beauticians, Daniela (Ariana Valdes), Carla (Nina V. Negron) and Vanessa (Gizel Jimenez) corner the market on zest and rampant sexiness, with Jimenez a spitfire who has transfixed Usnavi himself. Will Nina go back to college? Will her parents accept Benny? Will Usnavi go back to the Dominican Republic or stay “in the heights”? Who won the $96,000 lottery ticket sold by Usnavi, and who will profit for the win? Obviously a bit of a Latin flavored soap opera. Set to Miranda’s infectious music and danced like the last night of carnival by this large and talented cast it’s a hard package to resist.

A last minute caveat, unfortunately. The sound system doesn’t do justice to the singers rendering many of the lyrics incomprehensible. With much of the narrative revealed in the songs – and already complicated by rap timing and Latin accents, corrections should be made. A show this good doesn’t often come this way, and certainly not to be spoiled by technical weakness.

For a song list, see see Curtainup's review of the Broadway production .

In the Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by John Fanelli
Musical direction by Shelton Becton
Choreography by Morgan Marcell (based on original choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler)
Cast: Perry Young (Usnavi), Arielle Jacobs (Nina), Faye (Benny), Gisele Jimenez (Vanessa), Greg Luella (Sonny),Christina Armanda (Abele Claudia), Adriana Valdes (Daniela), Nicole Palomar Sara (Camilla), Nina V. Negron (Carla) Benjamin Perez (Kevin), Voltaire Wade-Greene (Graffiti Pete), Joey Samara (Piragua) Ensemble: Ryan Alvarado, Devon Buchanan Sparta Colon, Michael Fielder, Greer Gisy, Lauren Guerra, Alannah Halliday, Gabriella Sorrentino, Timothy Wilson, Antuan Raimone.
Set design: Steve Loftus
Lighting: Andrew Gmoser
Costume design: Maria Castaldo
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including one 30-minute intermission.
Westchester Broadway Theatre, 1 Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, N.Y. (Exit 23 off the Saw Mill Parkway)
Through March 17th.
Performances: Thursday through Sunday evenings and Thursday and Sunday matinees. Thursday: lunch at 11:30 a.m., show at 1 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening: dinner at 6:30 p.m., show at 8. Sunday matinee: lunch at 12 noon, show at 1:30 p.m., Sunday evening: dinner at 5:30 p.m., show at 7. Special reduced prices for this production.
Tickets, which include meal, show and parking, are $47 to $59 plus tax. Gratuities and beverage service are not included.
Students with ID may purchase a rush ticket 15 minutes before curtain for $20, subject to availability, ticket does not include food.
Reviewed by Chesley Plemmons at the Wednesday, Feb. 14th performance.
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