Anyone who has ever wondered what life is like for those living in Washington Heights can find an accurate portrayal in Tito Hernandez’s intricately directed “In The Heights,” onstage through Sunday, August 11 at the NC Theatre Conservatory. Hernandez has assembled an amazingly talented young cast and added in super-snazzy choreography by Sherry Lee Allen to bring the Dominican American neighborhood to life. Though the stage at the conservatory may be small, Hernandez is not afraid to use every inch; he utilizes the stage so successfully that it ends up feeling much larger than it is without ever becoming jumbled.
From the opening number to the bittersweet ending-of-an-era close, the setting is made perfectly clear, as are the motives and dreams of each of the show’s central characters. While the story gives glimpses into the lives of several people living “in the heights,” its main emphasis is on young Nina, a should-be-success-story who has returned home after failing miserably at college due to being overworked. She is portrayed by Kendall McCarthy, a pint-sized princess with a fiery sort of innocence and a voice that is nothing short of angelic. Her number “Breathe” is particularly well-delivered and benefits from some smart staging choices—at one point, members of the neighborhood stand behind her, gazing at her with expectation and making the audience understand the vast pressure young Nina faces.
The story is also largely focused on salon-worker Vanessa, portrayed by the up-and-coming English Bernhardt. Vanessa dreams of a bigger and better life and learns to lean largely on the support of her spirited girlfriends and on Usnavi (Collin Yates), who runs a shop on the corner and has eyes only for Vanessa. Bernhardt makes the role a memorable one, adding just the right touches of sweetness to the feisty character.
While one might think a young cast isn’t capable of handling such challenging adult roles—there are also parents and grandparents involved in the story—the actors are so polished and the show so well-directed that the performance becomes fully immersive, making it easy to forget the age of the actors. The production also does a good job of transitioning the neighborhood from day to night—frantic lighting, sequins, and some fast-paced dancing make the nightlife scenes some of the most intriguing of the entire production.
This is definitely a show that NC Theatre Conservatory can be proud of, and viewers can expect to see much more from this group of uber-talented, fast-rising stars.