R-S Theatrics
The .Zack Theater, 3224 Locust St., St. Louis

In The Heights

Ran Aug 18 - Sep 3, 2017
Reviewed by Joan Leyden

From the worn, scorching streets of the barrio, with its incessant clamor and grinding poverty, come Lin-Manuel Miranda’s survival songs and the compassionate book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, revealing the innate vitality of this small Spanish neighborhood, the interdependence of its members, their courage and tenacity.

There’s Usnavi, the narrator, who struggles to run a small bodega, but believes his real chance for happiness lies in his return to the Dominican Republic. He secretly pines for the beautiful Vanessa, who also longs to escape the barrio by moving to Manhattan, but he is too shy to ask her out. His exuberant cousin Sonny is not so retiring, and manages to get his own date with her.

The next major character to appear is the lovely and academically gifted Nina Rosario, who has just returned from Stanford, where she was unable to maintain her grades because of the pressure of two part-time jobs. Feeling displaced and anxious about telling her parents, Camila and Kevin Rosario, she struggles to find a better identity for herself, and in the process falls in love with Benny, the only non-Spanish character in the barrio. He is the dispatcher at her father’s car service, and he offers Nina support and sympathy in her painful confusion. Around them the neighborhood is alive with its own plans, and at the local hair salon its colorful and outspoken owner, Daniela, predictably holds forth on the barrio gossip.

In a surprise development, a much loved, older, Cuban woman, Claudia, has a stroke of luck, winning the $96,000 lottery prize on a ticket purchased at Usnavi’s bodega. Having been devoted to him since he was a child, Claudia wants to take him back to the islands with her, but these plans are short-lived, as she suddenly dies. Meanwhile, the city suffers a summer blackout during which Nina and Benny reveal their love for each other; the bodega is looted; Nina accepts her father’s help to return to college; Daniela decides to close her salon; and Usnavi determines to give up his bodega.

But in spite of all these setbacks to their daily lives, strong feelings of support and projected loyalty are demonstrated by the people in this community, and Usnavi realizes he has already found his island; “I’ve been on it the whole time. I’m home!”

The highest praise must be given to director Christina Rios and choreographer Cecily A. King for their talented, highly successful results with this material. The ensemble seems inspired, delivering these musical numbers with professionalism, charm and enormous energy. Their work is the heart and soul of the evening. There is tradition for this; in 2007, The Drama Desk Award for outstanding ensemble work went to the New York production.

The score, which won the Tony in 2008, is characterized by free-style rap and salsa. The lyrics by Miranda are urban poetry at its best, alive with street wit, warm sentiment and overflowing with youthful optimism, as are the individual stories as told by Hudes. These two artists have crafted a show that is a real celebration of life’s joys and possibilities, and this is captured in its fullness in this production.

Standing out in a talented cast was Cassandra Lopez’s acting and singing in the role of Nina Rosario; Marshall Jennings’ gifted, exuberant Benny; Carmen Garcia’s soulful “Abuela” Claudia; and Anna Skidis Vargas’ powerful, amusing Daniela. The young women and men in supporting roles were all convincing and appealing, especially Kevin Corpuz as the super-charged, irresistible Sonny.

Further congratulations must be offered to the orchestra for its spirited reading of the score. Too bad that the quality of the sound system was so poor, and that the production values seemed less than inspired, but considering the limitations of the stage at the Zack, and the company’s limited resources, this company under the direction of Christina Rios has done a remarkable job. It is an extremely pleasurable evening. See it if you can; I hear they are sold out!

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