Lin-Manuel Miranda, the master of Broadway rap-battles, would probably appreciate the irony of two of his shows dueling it out in the Triangle theater arena. But luckily for those who were not fortunate enough to win the lottery for tickets to the wildly popular Hamilton, playing Nov. 6-Dec. 2 at the Durham Performing Arts Center, the North Carolina Theatre in Raleigh, NC, is proudly running its predecessor In the Heights, directed and choreographed by Michael Balderrama. And while it might not have the frenzied fan base of its more historical successor, Heights is arguably the more relatable — and literally more accessible — work.
Set in the economically challenged Washington Heights area of Manhattan, the musical centers on Usnavi de la Vega (played by Andres Quintero), a charismatic young man whose parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic to the Land of Opportunity and whose passing has left their only son to run the modest De La Vega Bodega. Usnavi makes the best coffee in the barrio, longs for the love of the lovely Vanessa (Melanie Sierra), and dreams of someday visiting the homeland that his parents were so eager to escape. Usnavi shares the narrative stage with Nina (Cristina Sastre), a first-generation Latina Stanford University student, struggling to live up to the expectations of her entire neighborhood as the only person to have escaped the borough.
It’s these intimate stories of the colorful inhabitants of this tiny block that defiantly rings more relevant than any historical re-imagining. There are no famous names here, just the simple-yet-profound struggle of individuals, trying to reconcile their cultural identity and pride with the economic realities of being trapped in a seedier corner of one of the greatest cities on Earth. Thematic explorations of race, heritage, and opportunity blaze to life in a colorful display of song and dance, as the characters draw us into a complex mambo of intertwining lives.
The only thing that music director James Cunningham’s immensely skilled orchestra couldn’t seem to accomplish was keeping their volume from drowning out the vocals, which were muddied to the point of distraction on some numbers. But that was really the only nit to pick in an otherwise beautifully staged production.
Adam Koch’s vivid set incorporated humble storefronts crowded together under high-rise buildings and the soaring arches of the GWB (George Washington Bridge to the uninitiated), beautifully capturing the clash of sky-high dreams smothered by the trappings of life on the ground. Lighting designer Samuel Rushen does a masterful job of highlighting the endless shifts in mood and tempo — from dazzling fireworks to club dance-offs — through blackouts and sunrises. The saturated colors and intimate pools of light greatly enhanced the performance.
Andres Quintero’s Unsavi connects well with the audience, although the chemistry between him and Melanie Sierra’s Vanessa, perhaps, lacked some sizzle on opening night. Nina, performed with perfectly sweet vocals by Cristina Sastre, had a better time playing off of Nick Sanchez’s lovable Benny, her childhood friend whose feelings ignite when she returns from California for one sultry city summer. Their blossoming romance is overshadowed by the fact that Nina has dropped out of school, overwhelmed by the demands of a high-brow university so far from home.
Danny Bolero has the unenviable task of playing Nina’s disappointed father Kevin, but together with an outstanding performance by Carly Prentis Jones as Nina’s mother Camila, they provide much of the heart of the show. The rest lands on Abuela Claudia (played with quiet dignity by Nicole Paloma Sarro), the lovable grandmother-to-all whose life indelibly touches everyone around her.
The show boasts a talented ensemble cast that keeps it careening along — like an subway express train — through soaring vocals and intricate choreography (led by dance captain Greer Gisy). Standout performances include fiery salon owner Daniela (a dynamic Genny Lis Padilla), a youthfully brazen Sonny oozing street panache (played by Reed LoRenzo Shannon), and a Piragua Guy who nearly steals the show (sung with impeccable vocals by Michael Schimmele). Elizabeth M. Quesada’s adorably innocent Carla and David Guzman’s Graffiti Pete also shine in their supporting roles.
How can family drive their progeny to chase their dreams, without crushing them with overwhelming expectations? Are traditional definitions of success even relevant any more when everything from technology to gender is evolving at breakneck speed? In a culture battling for social justice, who gets to change the world?
Perhaps the only home that we get, the only identity that we can rely upon, is the story we tell. NCTs In the Heights doesn’t have all the answers, but it asks all the right questions with such heartfelt passion that the Oct. 16th opening-night finale brought the audience to its feet. Be sure to catch this joyfully staged production in one of its remaining shows, through Sunday, Oct. 21st.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 19th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/10/north-carolina-theatres-in-the-heights-is-a-heartwarming-crowdpleaser/; Oct. 18th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 5 of 5 stars): https://indyweek.com/culture/stage/got-the-cant-get-hamilton-tickets-blues-in-the-heights-is-a/ and Oct. 8th mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://indyweek.com/events/heights/; Oct. 17th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh BWW Review by Jeffrey Kare: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Review-North-Carolina-Theatres-IN-THE-HEIGHTS-20181017 and Oct. 12th BWW Interview with actors Genny Lis Padilla and David Guzman, conducted by Jeffrey Kare: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Interview-Genny-Lis-Padilla-David-Guzman-of-North-Carolina-Theatres-IN-THE-HEIGHTS-20181012; Oct. 17th Cary, NC Cary Magazine preview by Alexandra Blazevich: https://www.carymagazine.com/features/n-c-theatre-reaches-new-heights/; Oct. 17th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Roy C. Dicks: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9132; Oct. 17th Raleigh, NC USAOnstage Raleigh review by Karen Topham: http://chicagoonstage.com/usa-onstage-nc-muchas-alabanzas-high-praise-for-north-carolina-theatres-in-the-heights/; Oct. 16th Raleigh, NC WNCN/CBS 17 interview with actors Nick Sanchez and Christina Sastre, conducted by Taniya Wright: https://www.cbs17.com/dl365/entertainment/cast-members-from-lin-manuel-miranda-s-in-the-heights-stop-by-cbs-17/1528281173; and Oct. 10th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts Review interview with actress Carly Prentis Jones, conducted by Anika Willis: http://www.triangleartsreview.com/home/5-questions-with-carly-prentis-jones-who-portrays-camila-in-north-carolina-theatres-upcoming-production-of-in-the-heights and Oct. 9th interview with actor Reed LoRenzo Shannon, conducted by Anika Willis: http://www.triangleartsreview.com/home/5-questions-with-reed-lorenzo-shannon-who-will-portray-sonny-in-north-carolina-theatres-upcoming-production-of-in-the-heights. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 17th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell and the Oct. 18th review by Pamela Vesper, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/10/nct-kicks-off-its-2018-19-season-with-multiple-tony-winner-in-the-heights/ and http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/10/orgeous-sets-and-outstanding-voices-make-in-the-heights-at-nct-a-feast-for-the-eye-and-ear/, respectively.)
The North Carolina Theatre presents IN THE HEIGHTS at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20 and 21 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $25.15-$99.15, except $25 college-student tickets.
NCT Box Office: 919-831-6941, ext. 6944, or http://www.nctheatre.com/tickets/season-tickets.
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/369155/2492447.
2018-19 SEASON: https://nctheatre.com/show-season/201819-season.
PRESENTER: http://www.nctheatre.com/, https://www.facebook.com/nctheatre, https://twitter.com/nctheatre, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Carolina_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/nctheatre.
NCT BLOG (Stage Notes): http://www.nctheatre.com/stage-notes.
NOTE 1: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20th, performance.
NOTE 2: At 4:30 p.m., after the 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20th, performance, NCT will host a FREE panel discussion and audience talkback, moderated by psychiatrist and El Futuro executive director David Lucas “Luke” Smith, MD. The panel speaking on issues of concern to to North Carolina’s Hispanic community will include cast member Andres Quintero and Raleigh community leaders. For details, click here.
In the Heights (2007 Off-Broadway and 2008 Broadway musical): http://www.rnh.com/show/50/In-the-Heights (Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization) and http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/4439 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/in-the-heights-465744 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_the_heights (Wikipedia).
Lin-Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics): http://linmanuel.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/34364 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/lin-manuel-miranda-459893 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0592135/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lin-Manuel_Miranda (Wikipedia).
Quiara Alegría Hudes (book): http://www.quiara.com/quiara.com/Index.html (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/34365 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/quiara-alegra-hudes-459483 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm3730005/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiara_Alegr%C3%ADa_Hudes (Wikipedia).
Michael Balderrama (NCT guest director and choreographer): http://www.michaelbalderrama.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/34463 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/michael-balderrama-30721 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm3056713/ (Internet Movie Database), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Balderrama (Wikipedia).
Melanie Simmons of Cary, NC is a film and stage actress with a BA degree in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. She also studied dance at San Diego Mesa College and acting with Sande Shurin Acting Studios in New York City and at The Actor’s Workshop in Los Angeles, CA. She has performed locally at the Holly Springs Cultural Center in Holly Springs, Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio in Raleigh, and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum in Cary. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.