Hundreds of stories
In the Heights
Sacramento Community Center Theater1301 L St.
Sacramento, CA 95814
Here’s the antidote to musical-theater boredom: In the Heights, Broadway Sacramento’s current touring production. Set in the sultry New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights over three days in early July—including Independence Day—a multicultural Latino neighborhood takes a number of shocks to its system. And yes, a Latino neighborhood can be multicultural. Gabacho, there’s a grande difference between a cubano, a puertorriqueño, a mexicano and a dominicano. And don’t even start with the Guatemalans! The Latino immigrant experience in American—even in New York—is as varied as are the immigrants themselves.
But In the Heights, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, the hundreds of stories end up centered on four young people: Usnavi (Joseph Morales), the son of Dominican immigrants who runs a bodega and dreams of going back to his parents’ homeland; Nina (Genny Lis Padilla), the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants who earned a scholarship to Stanford University, but has just come home after dropping out; Vanessa (Lexi Lawson), a hair stylist with an alcoholic mother who just wants to get out of the neighborhood; and Benny (Nicholas Christopher), the only non-Spanish speaker in the neighborhood, who wants to start his own business. In the course of the long weekend, there’s drama and trauma, as well as singing, dancing and a celebration of community.
What’s perhaps most intriguing is the use of rap and hip-hop—in addition to Latin and soul styles—as a major force of storytelling. In the Heights takes full advantage of the form to stretch its musical storytelling prowess, from the very beginning. Usnavi (and there’s a hilarious joke about his name) enters first and sets the scene in a wonderful song that, if it’s not exactly gangsta, is certainly not found in traditional musicals. Morales is without a doubt the center of the show, not only as its major storyteller, but also as the one who plans to make the biggest change.
The moral center of the show—and of the neighborhood—is Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora), a Cuban immigrant who has become a “courtesy grandmother” to the entire neighborhood, and who has raised Usnavi and his cousin after their parents died.
But the community is a recipe for something special. It calls for a bit of working-class stress, some cultural discomfort, a heat wave and a winning lottery ticket. It’s seasoned with a graffiti artist and an adorable piragua vendor, and spread over a pair of young couples with confusion in their minds and love in their hearts. The sugar and spice comes from outrageously good dancing of both the traditional salsa style and the newer hip-hop type (and yes, there’s some breaking, too), and it’s topped ff with a splash of humor from a gossip-loving hairdresser and her sidekick and a little angst from a couple of upward-striving parental units. The whole thing stays good and hot.
And it’s as American as an apple empanada.