Hitting the ‘Heights’

Seattle Rep’s production of ‘In the Heights,’ Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-‘Hamilton’ musical, is an energetic romp.

The immersion into New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood is instantaneous in the titular opening number of In the Heights. Over seven and a half free-flowing minutes, the hood’s bodega owner, Usnavi, raps introductory bars chock-full of exposition and characters’ backstories without even busting a sweat, as the streets’ pedestrian traffic morphs into an energized and bustling chorus before reaching a euphoric peak. There’s a chance this Lin-Manuel Miranda guy is pretty dece at writing musicals.

In the Heights—which runs through December 30 at Seattle Repertory Theater (a co-production with Milwaukee Repertory Theater and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park)—is a tale of a relatively rundown neighborhood that still manages to burst with life despite financial woes due to the spirit of its largely Latino residents. It’s a patchwork quilt of prideful people hoping for better days. Usnavi runs the store with his spunky little cousin Sonny while also caring for his de facto parent and neighborhood matriarch, Abuela Claudia. Usnavi pines for Vanessa, a cash-strapped neighborhood stunner who works at the local salon (which will soon move to a better neighborhood). Nina Rosario, the pride of the neighborhood and one who’s gonna “make it out” after receiving a scholarship to Stanford, has returned home “on vacation,” as no one—including her parents, who run a struggling taxi service—initially knows the she became overwhelmed by being overworked and dropped out. Once back in town she strikes up a flirtatious relationship with Benny, an employee at her dad’s taxi business, Usnavi’s best pal, and the only non-Spanish speaker around. Between various financial woes, the upcoming Fourth of July, lottery dreams, and budding romances, there’s plenty of drama to be had, dovetailing perfectly with Miranda’s stellar ability to flow disparate-seeming pieces of songs into one another (the Spanish sections are easy to follow even if you don’t speak the language) and eventually stack seamlessly together (though Seattle Rep’s spotty mics and sound mix don’t maximize the clarity of the singers, unfortunately leading to moments where things garble).

Characters in Miranda’s musicals rely more on charismatic exuberance than vocal brilliance. That’s not a knock on the performers’ (very good to great) voices, but just what the roles call for. It’s not Les Misérables. That being the case, a few actors particularly pop in Seattle Rep’s rendition. Whether dismissing catcallers, playfully flirting with Usnavi, or even sulking in the corner, Stephanie Gomérez stands out from the pack as Vanessa. There’s an unforced, radiant naturalness to both her swagger and hurt in her performance, one that’s very hard to convey in the inherently broad setting of musical theater; one that catches the eye and then keeps the focus. Gomérez makes her seem less like a character and more like a real person who happens to be in a musical.

The gossipy salon owner Daniela is the show’s pure comic-relief character, and Lillian Castillo gleefully chews up every joke, moment of innuendo, and exaggerated side-eye. David Kaverman’s hunky charm as Benny is so effortless that it actually ends up feeling a touch cheesy when he’s trying to lay it on thick. And while it’s always difficult to step into the lead roles that Miranda writes so precisely for himself, Ryan Alvarado does a more than solid—if slightly tight—job as Usnavi.

While charisma is king, Miranda also includes at least one slot for a character who can blow an audience away with their pipes. For In the Heights, that’s actually Abuela Claudia (Yassmin Alers). While she’s not called on much, Alers knocks it out of the park on Abuela’s spotlight song, “Paciencia y Fe,” the one showstopper that’s not an ensemble extravaganza. Tony Chiroldes also adds some gravitas with his emotive singing voice as Mr. Rosario.

For those Hamilfans out there who somehow aren’t familiar with In the Heights, the show differs in a few major ways from the cultural sensation that followed it. First and foremost, while Hamilton feels like a hip-hop musical with a handful of traditional Broadway songs, In the Heights feels like a traditional Broadway musical with a handful of hip-hop songs. Really, the sounds of the Caribbean—specifically salsa—carry most of the sonic weight, with Usnavi occasionally peppering in some rap (it is astounding how distinctive Miranda’s hip-hop voice—style, flow, cadences—comes across no matter the show or actor delivering it).

The salsa vibes also lead to choreography playing a much bigger role in In the Heights. (It’s not really a hidden secret that Hamilton’s choreography is pedestrian at best, though it makes technical sense when the audience needs to focus on the quick, history-laced lyrical delivery.) The dancing here helps convey the sweltering heat of summer in New York City, whether the steamy frenzy of a nightclub (“The Club”) or a few breakdancing flairs from the neighborhood’s resident vandal, Graffiti Pete (UJ Mangune). Also, adding to the bustling buzz is the house band performing the on-point score live from the rooftop of the center building on the set (a clever design, indeed).

The whole package comes together in a beautiful and vibrant blur of hometown pride for immigrants and children of immigrants occupying Washington Heights. This idea comes to the forefront during the musical’s high point, “Carnaval Del Barrio,” a wild cultural celebration of the neighborhood and the people of varied Spanish-speaking cultural traditions who occupy it. While characters may be grappling with their future in the ’hood, In the Heights focuses on how the spirit of a diverse community and its sense of togetherness ultimately matter more to the lives we lead that any financial bottom lines. As long as we approach things with truly open, supportive hearts, home will always be home.

In the Heights

Thru December 30 | Seattle Repertory Theater | seattlerep.org