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In the Heights
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed and Choreographed by Luis Salgado
STAGES St. Louis
July 27, 2022

Cast of In the Heights
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
STAGES St. Louis

In the Heights was the first Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Best Musical before Hamilton. Even though it wasn’t quite the huge phenomenon that the latter show turned out to be, the first show is an entertaining, memorable, and character-filled hit in its own right. Now on stage at the Kirkwood Performing Arts center as produced by STAGES St. Louis, this is a dynamic, crowd-pleasing production with a strong cast and stellar production values.  It’s a compelling look at a distinctive New York City neighborhood and variety of people who live there, along with their hopes, dreams, triumphs and struggles.

Miranda’s blend of hip-hop, pop, Latin music, and traditional musical theatre influences work well to tell this story set in Washington Heights, a largely Latino neighborhood. The central character, Usnavi (Ryan Alvarado) owns a bodega, assisted by his young cousin, Sonny (Luis-Pablo Garcia). Usnavi essentially narrates the show from the beginning, telling his own story as well as introducing many of the other characters whose stories intertwine. There’s the Rosario family, who run a taxi business–Kevin (Edward Juvier) and Camila (Tauren Hagans), who are proud of their daughter Nina (Isabel Leoni), who has just finished her first year at Stanford. She’s hiding a secret, though, which she’s afraid to reveal to her parents. Nina also grows closer to Benny (Jahir Lawrence Hipps), who drives for the taxi company, but hopes to start his own someday. There’s also Vanessa (Amanda Robles), the object of Usnavi’s affections, who dreams of moving to an apartment downtown. Other local characters include Vanessa’s boss at the local hair salon, the gossip-loving Daniela (Ariana Valdes) and equally gossipy co-worker Carla (Marlene Fernandez), as well as Sonny’s pal Graffiti Pete (Cristian Rodriguez), a local frozen treat vendor known as Piragua Guy (Michael Schimmele), and the woman most people call Abuela Claudia (Tami Dahbura), who is especially close to Usnavi and the Rosarios. It’s a steamy summer in the neighborhood, and transition is in the air for many of the characters, whose aspirations vary and are affected by various plot events in different ways. A lottery drawing, romantic and family tensions, a heatwave and a blackout all contribute to the drama of this compelling, well-structured story.

The cast is terrific, simply stated. Alvarado has an amiable, awkward charm as Usnavi, and his performance is somewhat reminiscent of original Broadway lead Miranda. His chemistry with Robles’s determined Vanessa is sparkling, as are his scenes with the superb Dahbura as the “heart” of the show, Abuela Claudia. Garcia is also a strong standout as Sonny, showing strong physicality and comic timing. Also strong are Leoni as the conflicted Nina, who also has excellent chemistry with the equally impressive Hipps as Benny. There are some particularly strong voices here all around, and some great moments to shine especially for Dahbura on “Paciencia y Fe”, Schimmele as Piragua Guy, and Valdes as the big-voiced Daniela. Also worth mentioning are Juvier as Kevin Rosario, and Fernandez in a fun comic turn as Carla. There’s a great ensemble here, as well, with lots of energy, enthusiasm, and strong dance skills in the production numbers, dynamically choreographed by director Luis Salgado. It’s also great to see a live orchestra here again, which is becoming an especially welcome new tradition for STAGES now that they are in their current venue. The band here, led by music director Walter “Bobby” McCoy, is lively and in great form. 

With great music and vocals, this show is a treat for the ears, as well as for the eyes, since the production values are nothing short of dazzling. Broadway set designer Anna Louizos has brought Washington Heights to the stage here in vivid detail, with a richly appointed multi-level set. There’s also vibrant lighting design by Sean M. Savoie and colorful, detailed costumes by Brad Musgrove. In the setting and the staging, the neighborhood has come to life as essentially a character in its own right. 

With music, drama, dynamic energy, and lots of heart, In the Heights is a vivid portrayal of a community and a neighborhood, as well as a portrayal of the importance of family, friendships, dreams, and the definition of “home”. It’s also supremely entertaining. It’s a first-rate production at STAGES St. Louis.

Amanda Robles, Ryan Alvarado, Luis-Pablo Garcia
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting In the Heights at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until August 31, 2022

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