Marriott hits the Heights with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical

Photo by Liz Lauren

Even before the show began, the opening night audience at Marriott Theatre was so audibly psyched to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights that the anticipation was fairly crackling through the auditorium. When the James Vásquez-directed musical did begin on the theatre’s trademark “in the round” stage, it seemed that every new element, no matter how small, or every new performer elicited excited applause. And the audience had not even seen anything yet, could not know what an incredibly wonderful experience they were in for and how much this play’s cast, designers, and musicians would deserve every cheer.

In the Heights is Miranda’s tribute to New York’s Washington Heights and the mostly Latino people who reside there trying to make a living as hairdressers, cab drivers, bodega owners, or pushcart purveyors of the sugary fruit-flavored water called piraguas. This is a tight-knit neighborhood where people know each other and celebrate each other’s lives…while the economy of the area slowly falls apart and almost all of them dream about winning the lottery and getting out before their lives are upended in a much nastier way.

Miranda’s narrator—the character he himself played in New Yorkis Usnavi, here portrayed by the very likable Joseph Morales. Usnavi’s people are Dominican, and his dream in life is to return to the shores of the D.R. to spend the rest of his life. It seems that everyone in this Hispanic melting pot of a neighborhood harbors a dream of getting out, and now, for the very first time, it actually appears to be possible: Nina (Addie Morales), the daughter of the owner of the cab company, has become the first young person from her neighborhood to go to college. As the play starts, though, she has returned after her first year with real concern that the fact that she couldn’t hack it in California and dropped out would deflate the dreams of everyone in the barrio.

The play’s opening number and title song is spent energetically exploring the barrio and introducing the players who will become part of the specific story Miranda is telling. The first person we meet is a young punk placing graffiti on Usnavi’s steel roll-up door, followed by several key characters: Abuela Claudia (Crissy Guerrero), who is not really anyone’s abuela (grandmother) and has apparently adopted the entire barrio; three stylists from the financially on-edge neighborhood salon, the boisterous and outgoing Daniela (Lillian Castillo, the less confident Carla (Michelle Lauto), and Usnavi’s love interest Vanessa (Paola V. Hernandez); Usnavi’s young cousin Sonny (Jordan Arredondo), who works with him in the bodega; Benny (Yasir Muhammad), who works at the struggling taxi service run by Nina’s parents (Rudy Martinez) and Camila (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel). The two hour-long acts follow these characters on a hot June night when the entire neighborhood is buzzing about the discovery that Usnavi’s bodega has sold a winning lottery ticket worth $93,000…before the Heights suffers a blackout and lives are changed forever.

Anyone familiar with Hamilton knows that Miranda can always be counted on for slick rhymes and intricate rhythms as he lays out his story, and he certainly never disappoints. The ways in which he intertwines the stories of these characters (and the rest of the barrio) into and around each other is remarkable. [Even two minor characters, Graffiti Pete (Phillip Wood) and the Piragüero (Andres J. DeLeon) end up important for one reason or another.] Vásquez works hard to make sure each and every character has clear definition and individuality, while choreographer William Carlos Angulo gets them all working together in order to create some wonderful dance scenes. (Carnaval del Barrio is my favorite.) There are also highly emotional moments, one involving a death, but these people fight on despite their struggles and how unlikely it is that the struggling will ever cease.

This production is a bit unusual for Marriott, which tends to stage classic musicals like last year’s Damn Yankees and the theatre’s next play, The Music Man. Artistic Director Peter Marston Sullivan is to be congratulated for not only taking his theatre out of its comfort zone but also providing an opportunity for the many Latino performers who light up the stage here. (Literal lighting is, of course, the purview of designer Jesse Klug, while the flawless sound has been designed by Michael Daly and the set by Arnel Sancianco, costumes by Harri Horsley, music direction by Ryan T. Nelson, and wigs by Ray Sanchez. The Marriott orchestra is conducted by Noah Landis.)

Tickets for In the Heights are available from Marriott Theatre and at 888-729-4718. It is playing at 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, through March 17. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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