Review: ‘In the Heights’ soars at the Grand Theatre
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, May 25, 2023 (Gephardt Daily) -- One of the cast members of "In the Heights," currently playing at the Grand Theatre, includes in his bio a quote which reads: "It is said when emotion becomes too strong for speech, you sing, and when it becomes too strong for song, you dance." One of the cast members of "In the Heights," currently playing at the Grand Theatre, includes in his bio a quote which reads: "It is said when emotion becomes too strong for speech, you sing, and when it becomes too strong for song, you dance." This quote really sums up the musical, the first draft of which was written while Lin-Manuel Miranda was still in college. 'In the Heights' musical, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is currently playing at the Grand Theatre in Utah. It tells the story of characters in the neighborhood of Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, New York City, known colloquially as “Little Dominican Republic.” The show was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won four, including Best Musical. It was then expanded and toured and won a Tony and Best Musical Award. The cast is Armando Serrano as Miranda, who understudied the role in the recent production from West Valley Arts, and it stars Sophia Morrill Mancilla as Vanessa. The musical opened at the grand Theatre at 1575 S. State St. Friday and goes through June 10.
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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, May 25, 2023 (Gephardt Daily) — One of the cast members of “In the Heights,” currently playing at the Grand Theatre, includes in his bio a quote which reads: “It is said when emotion becomes too strong for speech, you sing, and when it becomes too strong for song, you dance.” This quote really sums up the musical, the first draft of which was written while Lin-Manuel Miranda was still in college.
With concept, music, and lyrics by Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, the story is set over the course of three days, and tells the story of characters in the neighborhood of Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, New York City, known colloquially as “Little Dominican Republic.” Miranda creates a hothouse environment, quite literally, as the characters deal with sweltering temperatures which lead to a large power cut brought on by the heat and humidity.
Adding to the intensity of their world is that many of the characters are on the cusp of change as they pursue their American dreams and explore what home means to them; Usnavi, who owns a small bodega, aims to return to the Dominican Republic with his beloved Abuela Claudia, his surrogate grandmother. He also has dreams of dating Vanessa, who works in the neighborhood salon but has big plans of her own. Meanwhile, Nina, the daughter of Kevin and Camila, who own a car service, returns from her first year at Stanford, but she’s reluctant to fill her parents in on how that went. Also, Usnavi has just sold a lottery ticket worth $96,000, and we wait on tenterhooks to see who purchased that ticket and what they will do with the money. All these stories are also offset by the characters’ anxiety over the consumption of their neighborhood by slowly spreading gentrification.
Miranda wrote the earliest draft of the musical during his sophomore year of college in 1999; it played as an 80-minute, one-act show in spring 2000 by Wesleyan University’s student theater company Second Stage. It was then expanded, and opened Off-Broadway in 2007 and on Broadway in spring 2008. The show was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won four, including Best Musical. The Broadway production, with Miranda in the lead role, closed in 2011; the show then toured. A movie adaptation of the musical was released in 2021 to widespread acclaim.
Miranda himself is of Puerto Rican descent and grew up in Inwood, just north of Washington Heights. After the success of “In the Heights,” he read a biography of Alexander Hamilton and began writing a concept album based on it that later became the show “Hamilton.” “In the Heights” is almost like “Hamilton Lite;” both have similar distinctive lyricism and musical flow.
The musical opened at the Grand Theatre at 1575 S. State St. Friday and goes through June 10.
As a show, “In the Heights” is really solid, with interesting storylines and excellent songs, but a successful production also depends on having a cast that spices up the proceedings and makes you want to leap up from your seat and sing and dance along. And the Grand Theatre’s production really does achieve this. Leading the cast is Armando Serrano as Usnavi, who interestingly understudied the role in the recent production from West Valley Arts. Serrano has the same charisma and charm as Miranda, along with a nice sprinkling of laid-back cool. Usnavi is the bridge between the audience and the other characters as he sings, raps and dances, pulling us into his world and allowing us to see the other characters through his eyes. Serrano is well matched with Sophia Morrill Mancilla as Vanessa, who is a triple-threat with sass aplenty. She’s a little like the coffee she so loves in human form: “Coffee, whole milk. Very sweet. Little bit of cinnamon,” Usnavi says to her, as he hands her her drink of choice. Mancilla also has ample comedy chops, which adds an interesting facet to Vanessa. Also nicely matched are Aisha Marie Garcia as Nina, who has an absolutely show-stopping singing voice, and Onias Snuka as her star-crossed lover, Benny.
It’s the type of production that you could see multiple times just to check out what everyone in the two-dozen strong cast is doing, because from the largest roles to the smallest, each individual excels and everyone is given their time to shine by director Vincent Ortega. Some characters reprise their roles after appearing in the West Valley Arts production, including Monte Garcia, who plays Kevin, Nina’s father, and is the real-life father of Aisha Marie Garcia. He is given a standout moment in the second act with the arresting song “Atención,” as is Sophia Valdez Davis, who returns to her role as Camila and performs the gorgeous song “Enough.” Also repeating her role beautifully is Sonia Maritza Inoa-Rosado Maughan as Abuela Claudia, who is the mother and grandmother figure to the whole community. The actors who are reprising their roles have a velvety smoothness which comes when you’ve lived with a character for a while.
Then there are the actors who are new to their roles but bring so much to the show. Avery Sims scores many of the laughs as Usnavi’s cousin Sonny, and adds gusto to every scene he’s in, as does Ambrocio Mireles Jr. as Piragua Guy, who brings a much-needed cool to the neighborhood. I also really appreciated how the ensemble seems to have been deliberately cast with actors who represent a cross-section of society. Adding spice to that ensemble is a tiny little actress who is not credited in the program but I’m guessing may be the daughter of one of the cast members. She absolutely steals every scene she’s in and it’s hard to watch anyone else when she’s on stage.
I should mention that the New-York based Ortega, as well as being the director, masterfully choreographs the show. Ortega has performed with and assisted with choreography for such names as Ricky Martin, Camila Cabello, the Black Eyed Peas, Usher, Britney Spears and Michael Jackson. His work in this production is absolutely on-point, with rich, exciting group numbers that encompass a range of dance styles.
The production values too are stunning. Halee Rasmussen, who is the resident set designer for the Grand, creates a whole neighborhood on stage, complete with Daniela’s salon, Usnavi’s bodega, Rosario’s Car Service, and Abuela Claudia’s home, with balconies, fire escapes, air conditioning units and the George Washington Bridge looming in the background; an ever-present reminder of a world beyond Washington Heights. The props design is by Máire Nelligan, who pays attention to every little detail; during the intermission, I heard the folks sitting behind me discussing the fact that the to-go cups used onstage are only available in New York City; it was slightly hard to see them from where I was sitting but I think they’re the blue-and-white drinking vessels known as Anthoras, which have been iconic since they were first designed in 1963.
The zesty lighting design by Paul Yeates is also a standout; the colourful washes and spotlights almost make us feel that we are in a nightclub, but outdoors. Yeates also navigates the slightly tricky task of capturing a blackout on stage for a prolonged period of time so we believe that there’s no electric light but we can still see the actors. I also really enjoyed the costume design by resident Grand designer Shannon McCullock. She puts her actors in clothes that are colorful and cool, and light enough that the hot temperatures are suggested and the actors are able to move and dance easily.
As I mentioned, “In the Heights” runs until June 10; the show plays Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.; tickets are available here. The show closes out the Grand’s season on a strong note; while the film version is a lot of fun, it’s only when you see the stage production that you really feel that in-person sizzle, and it’s unmissable.
Topics: Theater, Reviews