This is a show America needs now more than ever!
BY SANDY STAGGS
Jenna Tamisea and Christian Elser have an uncanny sense of timing.
Sure, the DACA and DREAMer dilemma has been simmering for years, but how could the co-founders of Glow Lyric Theatre anticipate some nine months ago when they selected “In the Heights” for their summer festival season, that this 10-year-old musical would have an entirely new relevance in the wake of media images of screaming toddlers being ripped from their parents’ arms upon crossing the Mexican border into America, a country founded by immigrants.
“In the Heights,” Tony winner for Best Musical, choreography and original score, would have been a hit regardless of Trump’s border fiasco because well, it’s a fantastic work, and also because it was written by Broadway’s superstar with the Midas touch, Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame.
A modern, fresh and utterly exhilarating hip hop, rap and Latin-infused show with so much relevance, “In the Heights” is a musical and perspective that our country needs now more than ever and comes on the heels of two other powerful musicals about the dangers of Trumpism and populism – “Cabaret” at The Market Theatre Company and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” at The Warehouse Theatre, where Glow is presenting its festival season that also includes Gilbert & Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore” and Beethoven’s only opera “Fidelio.”
The book by Quiara Alegria Hudes follows the residents of the largely-Hispanic Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan that is slowly being gentrified by real estate developers.
This neighborhood, comprised of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, comes alive and bustles in the incredible opening number “In the Heights” as we soon learn the main story arcs involving Usnavi (Ediberto Ortega in the role originated by Miranda), who owns the Bodega on the corner, the Rosario family and their taxi business, and Daniela (Valeria Ceballos), proprietor of the local hair salon.
Named by his father after seeing a “US Navy” ship when the family arrived in America, Usnavi is interested in the gorgeous but troubled Vanessa (De’Ja Crumpton), who works at the beauty shop. However, Usnavi is incredibly shy when it comes to women and dances “like a drunk Chita Rivera,” as described by his cousin and co-worker Sonny (a rich comedic performance by Alberto Blanco). It is Sonny who prods Usnavi to pursue his pining heart for Vanessa.
Abuela (a glowing Yesenia Rodriguez) is the ailing matriarch of the Barrio, having raised Usnavi and others from an early age, who grandmothers the entire street with her kindness, homemade food, and words of wisdom. And she prays every day for her ship to come, and it does in the amount of a $96,000 winning lottery ticket. She even sings a song about it.
Nina, played with conviction and a humble, emotional strength by the marvelous actor and performer Katerina McCrimmon, returns to the Barrio with the beautiful song “Breathe” as she sings about losing her scholarship to Stanford University and disappointing her parents Kevin and Camila (the dynamic duo of Jeremy Gussin and Lily Guerrero) who have scrimped and saved their entire lives since leaving Puerto Rico to give her this opportunity.
The first in her family to attend college, Nina is the one who “made it out of the Barrio” and soon reconciles her feelings for Benny (a longtime African-American employee at the cab company), a charming Andrew Coleman as the only character in the play who does not speak Spanish, but is adept at rapping as Coleman so convincingly demonstrates in “Benny’s Dispatch.”
But I will save my greatest praise for leading man Ediberto Ortega, who gives (along with Benjamin Davis of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) the male musical performance of the season. Charismatic, bold and fervent, Ortega commands your attention and awe with his formidable presence and good looks, not to mention his skills in rap and hip hop lyrics in iambic pentameter. He has agility when the role calls for the physical realm and conversely, considerable introspection and a display of pain and emotion (no spoilers here) when warranted.
The entire cast is sublime, both vocally and in dramatically terms, and moreover 100 percent multicultural, ethnically appropriate and authentic. There is no, forgive the term, whitewashing of the roles by director Ms. Tamisiea. This intentional directive allows her to stay out of the way of the story. But her talented hand is all over the cerebral composition of scenes and movement, and molding of the stellar performances from her cast.
You’ll see her touches in the chaotic “Blackout” (not an unusual occurrence in New York), a terrifying sequence of pandemonium with looting and unsettling climactic chaos. Under total darkness and Kevin Frazier’s fireworks lighting effects, the ensemble sings the double entendre lines “the fireworks” (literal and romantic) and “We are powerless,” and we know they are not just alluding to city’s loss of electricity.
In addition to the glorious opening, “In the Heights” boasts a bevy of stellar songs such as “When You’re Home” (blending pop with Latin brass riffs and percussion) and stylized dance numbers created by Michelle Morast (who is also in the ensemble). Morast’s choreography is not just infused with hip hop and Latin moves like the salsa and Meringa and more (even breakdancing), but the exhilarating Latin steps dominate and sizzle as another character in sequences like “Carnival de Barrio” and “The Club.”
The cast also includes Javy Pagan as the singing Piragua Guy, Angel Gavillan as street artist Graffiti Pete, and in the ensemble, Morast, Martin Justo, Maddie Johnston, Crystal Stewart, Cassie Francis, Steven Green, and Hakwon Hawkins.
Miranda and Hudes should be commended on their work’s positive depictions of strong-willed such as the saucy Camila (“dictator” of the Rosario family), the trio of young salon gals played by Ceballos, Crumpton and Jessica Eckenrod (as the nitwit Carla) who gossip in the hilarious “No Mi Diga (You Don’t Say),” and of course, Abuela.
Also impressive is the writers’ more accurate portrayal of the immigrant residents of Washington Heights as employed, hardworking people wanting to achieve the American dream, and not stereotypes of Latinos as drug dealers, gang members and welfare recipients.
Christian Elser music directs this show and conducts the amazing Glow band. Elizabeth Gray is costume designer, Katherine Rausch is Props Master, Wylder Cooper is Sound Designer, and Quinn Xavier Hernandez is assistant director.
As South Carolina’s only professional opera company and the state’s premier outlet for social justice theatre, “In the Heights” may be the company’s most poignant work since “Rent.”
And this exuberant musical shows that “home” is not necessarily where you or you family were born, where is you are … and where you’re going.
Make haste and get your tickets now, because several shows have already sold out!
Glow Lyric Theatre’s 2018 Summer Festival Season continues through August 4 at The Warehouse Theatre, 37 Augusta Road in Greenville. For tickets, visit www.glowlyric.com.