A lot has changed since the 2007 Off-Broadway premiere of In the Heights. For the career of its creator/composer/lyricist/original star Lin-Manuel Miranda. For the landscape of musical theatre—thanks to his 2015 follow up Hamilton. For the quality of life for immigrants of all origins in a country where its president has railed so viciously against them.
Why then has this show—that might seem immature when compared to a sung-through magnum opus about America’s ten dollar founding father—survived to be mounted so exuberantly by Pittsburgh CLO?
It’s because Miranda and book writer Quiara Algería Hudes (who has picked up a Pulitzer Prize since Heights opened) have created something that is both timeless and a period piece. They made a point of not including the gang violence and hard crime that is endemic of stories about Latin-American people, but it’s hard not to speculate what these characters would endure in today’s crueler world. Instead, they make a sweet character named Usnavi—who rhymes “awning” and “Good morning” and references Cole Porter in his opening rap—the narrator. Seems strange until you count the show’s four Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and numerous regional productions.
Stepping in for Miranda to wear Usnavi’s signature hat is the luminescent Joshua Grosso. If your heart doesn’t beat faster when his charming, nerdy energy bubbles into a hilarious, high-pitched squeal, you don’t have a pulse. His rapping and singing chops are of equal measure as are his dramatic and comedic capabilities. From the start of the show, you know you’re in good hands with him.
When Usnavi calls for “lights up on Washington Heights”, he isn’t just heralding the sunrise and the start of a new day of work, he is also shining a beacon on the secrets and struggles of his friends, family, and neighbors in the barrio. Anna Louizos’ Tony-nominated, incredibly intricate set gives vibrant life to the homes and businesses where he lays our scene. It also miraculously succeeds where most scenic designs fail in bringing some level of intimacy to the gargantuan Benedum Center.
To the immediate left of the corner store Usnavi runs with his wise-cracking cousin Sonny are the steps of Abuela Claudia’s home, where everyone in the neighborhood finds solace and delicious cooking. Next door is Kevin (alpha male Rick Negron) and Camila Rosario’s (fiery Blanca Camacho) eponymous taxi dispatch. They’ve sacrificed everything they have, but the business is failing anyway. Their most loyal employee, an African-American dreamer named Benny, still admires them and does his best to learn Spanish to find deeper community with them.
On the right side of Usnavi is a salon owned by gossip hound Daniela. She supervises flighty Carla and a credit-challenged bombshell named Vanessa desperate to fly the coop.
Three things throw a wrench in what was set to be a typical Fourth of July celebration: the huge revelation Nina Rosario returns from college with, a winning lottery ticket valued at $96,000, and a heat-induced natural disaster.
Still, nothing can stop the resilient citizens of the barrio from living full lives complete with romance, tragedy, and self-discovery. As immigrants or descendants of immigrants, they get the job done.
He may be Joshua Grosso’s right-hand man, but David Del Rio is also a one-man carnival del barrio in the role of Sonny. He spun what could’ve been a string of annoying one-liners into a complex characterization of a kid too clever and compassionate for his own good (but certainly not ours). If Grosso is the heart of the production, Del Rio is the brains and funny bone.
Rounding out the show’s organs are its sturdy spine and powerful lungs embodied by the epic performance of Patricia Phillips. The range of Abuela Claudia’s physicality from the frail older woman to the surefooted survivor she becomes while relaying stories of her harsh upbringing in “Paciencia Y Fe” took my breath away.
Miranda’s eclectic score is chock full of showstoppers from that solo to Benny and Nina’s soaring “When You’re Home” (given wings by Marcus Paul James and Genny Lis Padilla’s insane vocals) to act one’s aspirational anthem “96,000”.
Pinpointing the reason for Miranda’s success is as easy as recognizing how he has been able to inspire artists like Tony winners Karen Olivo and Alex Lacamoire with his singular vision and keep them coming back to his projects. Another of those artists is Michael Balderrama. After dancing for Michael Jackson, he was dance captain, fight captain, and swing for the Broadway iteration of Heights.
At the helm of this production, he maintains the high caliber of work originally executed by director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. With his fluid and fresh movement, Balderrama has ensured that every member of the ensemble has a distinct identity and heritage. It’s difficult to stay in your seat when the cast is tearing it up in “The Club”.
The ubiquity of fireworks on July fourth makes it unlikely, but, if by some chance you couldn’t see a colorful, crowd-pleasing, explosive display of patriotism somewhere, you’re in luck.
Pittsburgh CLO’s heartwarming and winning In the Heights is hot enough to cause a blackout. You won’t see your fears and anxieties anymore, just what’s right in front of you: home and the people and memories that make it meaningful.
In the Heights runs through July 16th at the Benedum Center. For more information, click here.
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh CLO for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Archie Carpenter.