I had no expectations whatsoever when I bought tickets to "In The Heights." I only had this show's reputation in the Tony Awards and of course, Atlantis Productions' reputation for staging only the best of Broadway. The Tony-winning score and lyrics were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda also played the lead in the original Broadway version. It also won Tonys for Best Choreography and Orchestration.
The announcements before the play began about turning off the cellphones and no photography were all in Spanish. The store signs onstage all had Spanish names on them and this suggested that we are in for a Latin-flavored show.
The first song "In The Heights" really set the mood with its effusively happy beats and melodies. This song is unusual for a Broadway show because it was rapped out by the characters led by owner of the local convenience store unusually named Usnavi. (We will learn later how he got this name, and it is hilarious!) "Heights" in the title refers to Washington Heights, a Latino community in Manhattan, with immigrants from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. The dancing is modern street hip-hop with cool snappy moves. Our familiarity with the Spanish expressions they use help us get into the groove of things easily.
As the story unfolds, we could see that this be applied to any third world immigrant community yearning for the elusive American Dream in the Big Apple. A family with an intelligent child for whom they sacrifice everything just to send off to college. Poor people outwardly having a fun time despite living desperately day by day in their dead end jobs. The story could be about Filipinos in New York. We can all definitely relate.
The central family in the story are the Rosarios, with dad Kevin (a very hefty Calvin Millado) and mom Camila (a luminous Jackie Lou Blanco), who own a car service. Jackie Lou really shone as actress and singer in her featured song "Enough." That is certainly no "You Don't Own Me." Her Camila is strong and passionate.
Their precious daughter Nina has just come home from Stanford with a secret. She is played by ingenue K-La Rivera in her theater debut. She has a stage presence and singing voice like that of a young Menchu Lauchengco crossed with Monique Wilson. I would say hers is probably one of the best debut stage performances I have seen. Atlantis staple leading man Felix Rivera is Benny, an employee of the Rosarios who loves Nina. Already tried and true with his belting, Felix revealed a new side by rapping his rap lines very fluidly.
Usnavi is played by Nyoy Volante. Nyoy's rapping was flawless as the lyrics were fast and furious with an Eminem vibe to it. His acting was very touching and emotional. It was as if Usnavi was written with him in mind. After his successes in "Hairspray" and "Legally Blonde," Nyoy should really do more musical theater.
His adopted Abuela (grandmother) Claudia is played by Ms. Jay Glorioso. I have seen her in plays before, but this is the first time I have heard her sing and how! Her showcase songs "Paciencia y Fe" and "Hundreds of Stories" were glorious. Usnavi's smart-ass cousin Sonny is played by Bibo Reyes. This is the first time I have seen him, yet he had confidence needed for his role. He always stole his scenes and got a lot of spontaneous applause.
Usnavi's love interest is sassy and sexy Vanessa, played by Ima Castro. I must say that this role fits Ima more than her previous role of "Aida". She was comfortable and believable here. Of course her strong "Ms. Saigon"-proven vocals are ever-reliable. A new face for me was the actress who played the jaded Daniela, who owned the beauty salon where Vanessa worked. She is Tex Ordonez (whom at first I thought was Pokwang, with apologies to Ms. Ordonez). Wow, this lady can sing! Her featured song "Carnaval del Barrio" was amazing in vocal arrangements and choreography.
The songs in this musical are very catchy. I think I will have to look for a soundtrack CD to listen to them all over. As I said earlier, the simple stories and characters are easy to relate to. You will definitely also enjoy the energetic modern dancing. Congratulations to the director Bobby Garcia for this fantastic local staging of "In The Heights"! Kudos to the cast and Atlantis crew for another winner production!
"In The Heights" has a short three-week run ending on September 18, 2011 at the Carlos P Romulo Auditorium in Makati. Do catch it!