‘In the Heights’: A transportive musical time capsule

Portland Center Stage takes you to Washington Heights in the early aughts with a grand, energetic production

By SHAWNA LIPTON

The majority of new Broadway musicals are jukebox compilations of pop and rock hits, restagings of campy Hollywood films, and reimaginings of Disney animated blockbusters. Among these iterative rehashings of popular culture, Lin-Manuel Miranda has innovated with his musical mashups and compelling original stories.

Portland Center Stage’s “In the Heights”/Photo by Owen Carey

Miranda is known for being a fresh voice in a medium prone to pandering to tourists rather than pushing artistic boundaries, infusing the mainstream musical theatre world with hip hop and Latin musical influences, and creating dynamic and varied roles for people of color, most famously with Hamilton: An American Musical.

Before he created Hamilton, there was In the Heights, now playing at Portland Center Stage, a high-energy entertainment with an impressive ensemble cast.

Miranda was inspired to write the first version of In the Heights in 1999 while he was attending Wesleyan University after seeing the musical Rent and realizing that musicals could be of the moment, documenting a slice of life in a specific community of people. In the Heights intended to capture the issues and concerns of Miranda’s own Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City. 

Miranda wrote the music and lyrics, and playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes came onto the project in 2004, helping to provide narrative structure. Incorporating rap and salsa along with traditional musical theatre elements, the show was a breakout hit and ran for three years on Broadway (2008–2011), and won four Tony awards (nominated for 13), including best musical and best original score. 

Of course, the success of In the Heights has now been overshadowed by the cultural powerhouse that is Hamilton. If In the Heights is Miranda’s take on Rent, Hamilton is more like Les Misérables, with its historic subject matter, production design (both use a revolving turntable on stage), and score full of memorable songs.

But now is an especially good time to see a local production of In the Heights, right before the film adaptation that began shooting this summer is released in 2020. You can still experience the show in its original form, as a live theatrical event. 

Portland Center Stage’s “In the Heights”/Photograph by Owen Carey

Great care was taken in the casting of the Center Stage production. The actors and dancers are people of color, often from the same country as the characters that they are portraying. This adds a level of emotional resonance for the actors who identify with their characters and the dynamics unique to first and second generation immigrant families. 

The narrative takes place over the course of three days and features members of three generations of residents on the block at Broadway and W 183rd Street: Abuela Claudia who emigrated from Cuba; Kevin and Camila Rosario, business owners from Puerto Rico; and Usnavi whose parents were from the Dominican Republic and left him a bodega to operate. 

The Rosarios work to support their daughter Nina, a first-generation college student struggling to keep up with her workload at Stanford while covering the cost of tuition and expenses. She feels the pressure of being “the one who made it out” of her community and is questioning her place both at school and at home. Usnavi dreams of visiting the Dominican Republic and harbors affections for Vanessa, the girl who works at the salon next door. Vanessa is seeking upward mobility and a move downtown away from her dysfunctional mother. 

The musical numbers in In the Heights alternate between Usnavi’s comedic hip hop narration, large-scale production numbers showcasing the whole ensemble, and solo ballads for a number of characters. 

The weakest part of this production is probably the solo singing of the two female ingenue characters, Nina (played alternately by Sophia Macías and Paola Hernández in the performances I attended) and Alyssa V. Gomez as Vanessa. Nina’s first song “Breathe” can be heart-wrenching and features some of the most impactful lyrics (“When I was a child I stayed wide awake/ Climbed to the highest place/ On every fire escape/ Restless to climb/ I got every scholarship/ Saved every dollar/ The first to go to college/ How do I tell them why/ I’m coming back home/ With my eyes on the horizon?”) and the role of Vanessa is a star-turn for the right kind of endearing it-girl. Gomez seemed to struggle through some of the singing and dancing parts originated on Broadway by Karen Olivo (who won the 2009 Tony award for best featured actress in a musical for her performance as Anita in a revival of West Side Story, and is now performing on Broadway as Satine in Moulin Rouge). 

The women of the cast portraying secondary characters compensate for this shortcoming. Karmine Alers stops the show with her song “Enough,” and Lillian Castillo, as scene-stealing salon owner Daniela, absolutely chews the scenery every time she is on stage and got the longest applause of the night after her feature number “Carnaval del Barrio.”

Ryan Alvarado performs respectably in a demanding role, rapping the narration for the play and showing off his bumbling charm as Usnavi. In this production, though, the hero is Benny, played by a pitch perfect Alex Nicholson. Nicholson makes complex vocal parts seem effortless: His solo “Benny’s Dispatch” was a delight, and his smooth vocals shone through the group number “96,000.” 

Debra Cardona and Ryan Alvarado in “In the Heights” at Portland Center Stage/Photography Owen Carey

In a sense, Benny and Nina’s plotline pushes back on West Side Story, the 1957 stage musical that features Puerto Rican characters in stereotypical roles as gang members (singing lyrics like “Puerto Rico, You ugly island/Island of tropic diseases”).  Miranda and Hudes both have Puerto Rican ancestry, and In the Heights has its own more nuanced and realistic take on the star-crossed romance of Tony and Maria. 

Benny works for Nina’s father Kevin at his car service. Kevin sees Benny as an outsider to their culture as he does not speak Spanish, and he refuses to acknowledge him as an appropriate partner for his daughter Nina, upon whom he vicariously pins his aspirations, and hopes will “change the world someday.” In this case, the cultural divide is bridged in a romantic scene where Nina playfully teaches Benny Spanish terminology after spending the night together during a city-wide blackout. Their story is the emotional core of the play, which is a soapy quotidian dramedy, not a tragedy. 

There are some stunning, virtuosic dancers in this cast including UJ Mangune as b-boy Graffiti Pete, and ensemble members Lily Leyva, and Emily Madigan. It is truly hard to take your eyes off of them even when they are not the main focus of what is happening on stage.  For that reason, the highlight of this production may be the ensemble numbers such as “96,000” and the act one closer “Blackout.” 

“Blackout” takes place during a blackout in the neighborhood and features some comically on-the-nose lyrical puns, including Vanessa, who is feeling frustrated by her thwarted class aspirations, singing, “we’re powerless” when the power goes out, and the cast singing “look at the fireworks” when romantic leads Benny and Nina kiss for the first time on the fourth of July with literal sparks flying.  

The dancing in “In the Heights” is a major strength of the production. Alexander Gil Cruz, Eddie Martin Morales, Alyssa V. Gomez, and UJ Mangune in In the Heights./Photograph by Owen Carey

The costumes have a distinctly early 2000’s feel, down to Usnavi’s striped polo, Kangol cap and Vans, and truly, this production seems frozen in time. Those looking for political or social commentary beyond the surface level of the plot may be pressed to find it. Issues of race and class are communicated through Nina’s challenges at college and Vanessa’s failure to pass a credit check when she tries to rent an apartment. Usnavi and Nina question their identities, as neither feel fully Dominican or Puerto Rican, but wonder what their lives would be like if they were there instead of New York. The impact of gentrification on the community looms large as one business is forced to close due to the rising cost of rent. The importance of chosen family is central, as Abuela Claudia makes an impact on everyone in the neighborhood despite not being “really their Abuela.”

In seeking to create nuanced characters more true to their family and community members than the caricatures in West Side Story, Miranda and Hudes may have erred on the side of “respectability politics,” as everyone portrayed fits “American Dream” narratives of being hardworking and family oriented. It all has a distinctly early 2000s feel that doesn’t speak directly to the political exigency of violent anti-immigrant sentiment facing Latinx people today for audiences aware of the targeted attacks at Pulse in 2016, and recently in El Paso.

The production notably did update one lyric in the original score, changing “Donald Trump and I on the links, and he’s my caddy!” to “Tiger Woods.” Musical director and conductor Eugenio A. Vargas said this decision was made so as not to  “take people out of the show.”

Portland Center Stage has created a number of events and a post-show discussion series in collaboration with the Latino Network in order to forge more direct connections between the Latinx community featured on stage and the Latinx population here in Portland (the audience at PCS was predominantly white). The conversation I attended addressed issues surrounding how to make the arts more accessible to marginalized communities. All three panelists were Mexican or of Mexican descent. Artist and PNCA Professor Patricia Vázquez Gómez talked about living in the Cully neighborhood, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods of Portland, and still feeling that her neighbors have little interaction with people of color and remain largely unaware of their perspectives and experiences. 

Alex Nicholson in “In the Heights” at Portland Center Stage/Photo by Owen Carey

I strongly recommend attending one of these panels following the performance to hear from Latinx artists and cultural workers in Portland. PCS has created these opportunities for engagement throughout the run of the show. 

This production is much grander than the excellent Fall 2017 PCS production of the more intimate family drama musical Fun Home, adapted from the graphic novel memoir by Alison Bechdel. Where Fun Home delves deeply into one character’s coming of age story and shows the isolation and estrangement that can exist within a family unit, In the Heights displays the interdependence and mutual aid that can flourish within a broader intergenerational cast of characters. Heights provides a snapshot of a neighborhood at a particular moment in time, and makes us more aware of how essential community bonds can be. 

Portland Center Stage, 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Sundays, 2 pm Saturdays-Sundays. Through Oct 13, $25-$92.

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