Theater Review: 'In the Heights' closes Lyric summer season
Lyric’s summer season at the Civic Center Music Hall in the Thelma Gaylord Theatre closes with “In the Heights” with book by Quiara Alegria Hudes and music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. This is another co-production with the ZACH Theatre of Austin, directed and choreographed by Michael Balderrama.
Miranda’s first Broadway hit, “In the Heights,” is set in the Washington Heights area at the northern end of Manhattan in New York City. The troubles of the working-class folks -- some of whom are naturalized immigrants from Central America and Mexico, and others are American-born children of immigrant families -- form the core of the story.
Narrated by Usnavi de la Vega (Keith Contreras-McDonald), owner of the neighborhood bodega, the story interconnects his desire to return to the land of his birth; his interest in Vanessa (Alicia Taylor Tomasko), a beautiful salon employee with her own troubles; the socially focused goals of Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Nicolas Garza) and his friend Graffiti Pete (Deiondre Teagle); the troubles of the Rosario family, whose daughter Nina (Cristina Sastre) is struggling with college and romance; and the maternal love and concern of the neighborhood grandmother, Abuela Claudia (Theresa Medina), who has her own challenges.
The talented cast delivered a sharp and energetic ensemble performance. Some sharply evocative and powerful moments came from Nina’s mother, Camila Rosario (Nicole Paloma Sarro), and from Daniela (Gina Marie), the owner of the salon who has interests in everyone’s life.
Some of the underlying power of the story comes from the desire of almost all of the characters to “get out” of the Heights. The struggles to escape, and the sadness of loss, are less a part of the book than a part of the direction and acting. This cast did a splendid job giving us the complexity of emotion that this paradox demands.
When the cast brings the whole show forward to the audience, the energy filled the house. In the more intimate moments of the complex story, the story seemed to retreat, leaving a distance between audience and action. “In the Heights” has certainly worked in large theatres like the Gaylord; in this case, direction of the show seemed more fitting for a smaller theatre, where the personal connections would be more easily made. Perhaps for those in the front orchestra seats, there was no such disconnect.
The combination of popular musical styles (hip-hop, salsa/rock, ballad) is a trademark of Miranda’s writing, and it can be challenging to some companies. In a rare instance of balance, under the musical direction of Jordan Cunningham, the loud singing and loud instruments mostly balanced each other, and the lyrics were almost all clearly audible.
Sets and costumes and lighting—the technical elements that, when done well, are almost invisible—achieved that imperceptibility in this production. Scenic design by Anna Louizos and costume design by Scott Westervelt located the show in time and place, using theatrical conventions carefully and effectively. Helena Kuukka’s lighting carried the action through time, emphasizing the occasional individual moment. Sound design by Anthony Risi subtly underlined life in the Heights.