Monday, November 12, 2018

"In the Heights"

In the Heights
Lin Manuel Miranda (Music); Quiara Alegria Hudes (Book)

The Cast of In the Heights
In 2008, a musical that opened on Broadway and went on to win four Tonys that year (including Best Musical) quickly established itself as one that would influence a new generation of stage musicals.  Not only was the large cast all but one of Hispanic/Latino backgrounds who freely spoke much Spanish throughout, the music that In the Heights introduced to Broadway was the kind of freestyle rap and hip-hop beat that would one day be used to even a greater extent in the phenomenal, further ground-breaking Hamilton.  Lin Manuel Miranda wrote the music and starred in both shows, with Quiara Alegria Hudes (winner of 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her Water by the Spoonful) contributing the book.  In the Heights takes place in a largely Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York City, with its initial staging featuring an entire barrio of family owned businesses and a large cast of twenty-plus.

Custom Made Theatre Company has a reputation for taking big-stage, well-known musicals and daring to produce them on its rather miniscule stage in the intimate theatre barely seating fifty (e.g., Chess, Man of La Mancha, Next to Normal).  In each case, critics and audiences alike have applauded both the effort and the result.  To end its 2018 season, Custom Made Theatre Company tackles with much vim and vigor the rap, salsa, and captivating story of In the Heights, reducing the cast to an essential twelve and challenging scenic designer Mara Ishihara Zinky to create a variety of local businesses and homes using the interior of a local market and a versatile, rotating cart (which she does beautifully).  While the humor, heart, and heartache of the story of a neighborhood in transition is affecting in this Custom Made undertaking, the core of the musical – the music itself – too often falls short with a cast where some members cannot consistently deliver convincingly the score’s basic requirements.

Julio Chavez
Usnavi is a first-generation American owner of a small, neighborhood mercado (food and drink market) whose Dominican parents gave their newborn a name they had seen on a on a passing ship (U.S. Navy) as they arrived in this country.  His store is where neighbors tend to stop by each day for coffee, a bite, and the latest barrio news.  Julio Chavez commands the role of Usnavi with a personality magnetic and just enough blushing shyness (especially in regard the girl he likes, Vanessa) to make him especially likeable.  Usnavi opens the show with expressive hands and short-step, hip movements, rapping “In the Heights,” a delivery mode he continues in his own sung numbers throughout.  His quick clipping of the words is overall easy to understand (even for non-rap listeners) and full of emotional fervor.  (However, in the opening number and beyond, at times the sound system does not project his words as clearly or loudly as it should over the background, musical accompaniment -- a problem that persists off-and-on all evening for most of the performers.)

Usnavi’s love interest is Vanessa, who works at a local hair salon and who has ideas beyond just remaining in the Heights and marrying a local boy.  As Vanessa, Nora Fernandez Doane intensely stares into a future when “one day, I’m hopping that elevated train [the noisy one, outside her window] and I’m riding away.”  With one of the stronger voices of the cast, she sings “It Won’t Be Long Now.”  “I’m gonna fly, it want be long now, any day.”

Nina Rosario (Carla Gallardo) has already flown from the neighborhood as first from her collection of friends and family to go to college – something that leads all now to burst in pride.  But financial pressures at Stanford have led her to drop out after less than a year, and her return (and going four months without telling her parents she had already left the school) causes a major blow-up with her parents, Kevin (Sergio Lobito) and Camila (Bidalia E. Albanese). 

Bidalia E. Albanese, Sergio Lobito & Carla Gillardo
When her father decides to sell the family taxi company at a rock-bottom price to enable her to go back to school, more eruptions occur between him, his wife Camila, and Nina.  However, the biggest internal inferno is yet to come when the parents discover Nina and their long-time, trusted employee, Benny (Dedrick Weathersby) – a non-Spanish-speaking African American who has been heretofore treated largely like family – are romantically involved.  Ms. Albanese as mother and wife provides one of the evening’s most powerful moments when she repeated says “no” to all the scream-packed in-fighting of her family, singing a strong-willed, not-going-to-take-this-anymore “Enough.”

Mia Romero, Carla Gallardo, Elena Estér & Nora Fernandez Doane
La familia of this Heights neighborhood includes the hair salon’s gossipy owner who leans toward being overly dramatic with snap and style, Daniela (Mia Romero) and her employee, Carla, the spirited Elena Estér.  Graffiti Pete (Jepoy Ramos) is a street artist who upsets Usnavi with the latest creation he leaves on his store’s wall and who is seen as a local trouble-maker – more due to his low-riding pants and his proneness to slouch and desire for free Slurpies than anything he has actually done.  His pal and the cousin of Usnavi who helps out at the store (doing as little as he possibly can) is Sonny, a joking, street-savvy kid with a keen eye for fairness and justice.  As played with smooth-moving cool and a big smile for all, Edwin Jacobs’ Sonny is the young relative/pal that anyone would like to have.

Michelle Navarrete & Bidalia E. Albanese
The heartbeat of the barrio is the hunched-over and arthritic-suffering yet spry and twinkling woman who is everyone’s abuela, or grandmother, Claudia.  Michelle Navarrete is an inspiration and a delight as the old-in-age, young-in-spirit, and wise-in-all-respects woman who raised Usnavi after his parents died soon after he was born in the U.S.  The stories she relates of the struggles and sacrifices of her life where prejudice by the majority was a frequent visitor is perhaps the most touching, most impactful sequence of the evening.

All of these people’s lives intertwine during three, sultry days and sticky nights in July when a sudden blackout throws their world into discomfort and unease.  The issues of love and family as well as difficult decisions being made by several to close or transfer local businesses for personal or financial reasons occur as the world around them is on darkened edge – even as the fireworks of July 4 light the sky in attempts of celebration.  Tensions rise in all directions until Abuela Claudia reminds them all in one unexpected minute what life and family is really all about.

The story of these recent immigrant citizens is indeed an American one that needs to be told, now more ever.  As director, Nicole Meñez takes this big-stage tale and brings it into sharp focus on the small, close-up stage before us.  She also choreographs some rousing numbers that have a lot of spark and high energy even if they do not always work as well musically.  Mariely Cortes finds ways humorously and lovingly to portray each character’s personality and sometimes quirkiness through her costumes.  Stephanie Dittibern has excelled in designing properties that make us want to go shopping on stage for a treat or two.

Where the show falls and often falls flat is in too many of the romantic duets as well as in the some of the small group and even full-chorus numbers where one or maybe two voices go off key too far or simply over-sing in ways to mar the overall number’s effect.  Unfortunately, there are too many of these “like-fingernails-on-a-chalkboard” moments scattered throughout here and there to be ignored.  Coupled with the musical issues – at least on opening night – were problems with sound balance, missed lighting cues, and a collapsing, background wall that someone chose noisily to fix during one of the solos.  All of these latter issues certainly will be corrected during the run.

But in the end, Custom Made Theatre Company should be commended for stretching the boundaries of is stage to pursue a show other companies its size would probably never consider.  In this case, the result falls short musically; but the cast still finds a way to tell a moving, important piece of recent, American history.

Rating: 2.5 E

In the Heights continues through December 15, 2018 at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photo Credits:  Jay Yamada

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