Such great heights: UCR’s latest musical takes center stage

Courtesy of Alan Call
Courtesy of Alan Call

As the first mainstream Latino Broadway play written and created by Latinos, and as a direct response to the critically acclaimed “West Side Story,” the highly anticipated musical “In the Heights” has enamored UCR faculty, students and community members. Tickets were scarce to see UCR’s first musical in seven years, revealing an immensely apparent thirst for the kind of theater that more accurately reflects the community we live in.

Written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, conceived and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, “In the Heights” ran on Broadway in 2008 for a total of 1,184 performances. “Into the Heights” explores the issues and realities of the urban decrepit landscape of Washington Heights. A real community epicenter in Upper Manhattan, Washington Heights is known to house an eclectic composition of lower socioeconomic immigrant Latino populations diverging into a dense cityscape. As the musical’s introduction states, “What started as a small love story that happened to be set in the particular area of Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan morphed into a love letter to the entire neighborhood and its diverse Latino culture.” This love letter is both eloquent and complicated.

“In the Heights” grapples with community issues of gentrification, access to higher education, economic struggle, health care affordability and the immigrant experience while depicting the universal experiences of love, loss, family dynamics, financial struggle and being a part of a community of people that comprise the place you call home. As pointed out at the talk-back, the play — and the performance itself — made the audience “See yourself in Latinas.” This reaction is a powerful part of this production. The energy and passion on stage made me as an audience member able to connect with the characters and larger community as a whole, so dissimilar from my upbringing, allowing for me to feel a deep sense of investment in the characters’ lives. This can only be achieved by quality acting, which the production as a whole conveyed, giving an excellent example of what well-done theater can achieve: communicating a sense of humanity that leaves the audience feeling the residual effects of the performance long after the curtain closes.

What impressed me was the dynamic range and energetic presence the cast brought through their dancing and singing from the moment the musical began to the moment it ended. For instance, as soon as the play began, Usnavi De La Vega (Khalif Gillett), the owner of the local De La Vega Bodega, set the scene with a spoken word piece about the community of Washington Heights. Setting the tone, De La Vega served as the audience’s indispensable tour guide and main character whose story moves the rest of the play.

As a musical, the need to have strong vocal performers to carry the story along is imperative. Fortunately, the vocal range and ability of the cast was an impressive and powerful component of “Into the Heights,” propelling the scenes to extraordinary levels. An example of this was in the character Nina Rosario, the Stanford freshman who feels the pressures of accessing the college setting with financial restraints. Played by Leslye Martinez, her vocal ability is awe-inspiring. In the song “Breath,” Martinez’s wide range and ability to balance the emotions of the scene really highlighted a shining young talent gracing UCR’s stage.

My only major critique comes from sound. Throughout the play, the speakers of the microphones of the actors occasionally broke in and out, cracking in the middle of the performance. This didn’t throw the actors off-guard, as they kept on going, but it became a distracting component of the performance. As “In the Heights” continues this week, I am convinced kinks like this will be sorted out.

The work the crew put into the physicality of the stage was notable. The set protruded into the intimate arts studio theater, breaking the fourth wall between the separation of audience and performers. This impressive set design served as a very thoughtful component into the entirety of the production as a whole. The buildings of the set — which comprised of Rosario Car Service stage left, the De la Vega Bodega center left, Abuela’s home center stage, and Daniela’s Salon center stage right — cultivated an aesthetically pleasing positioning from the audience’s viewpoint. Allowing for the close proximity of these community establishments gave life to El Barrio’s day-to-day grind in the intersecting lives of the characters, making these establishments more than buildings, but homes for the lively locals who reside there.

As the first scene opened, and the self-titled opening song began, I was instantly hooked by the elaborate choreographed synchronized dance by the ensemble cast; the upbeat, rhythmic musicality accompanied by a strong Latin influence; the voices of the 12 main characters; the ensemble filling the theater with the power and depth of their vocal abilities. From the onset, the hard work and dedication of the production team, actors, artists and everyone involved was clear.

The audience became a part of the community, not detached from the complicated lives of El Barrio. This was seen in the residual reaction of the first act’s closing scene, as the ensemble’s chaotic scramble beautifully choreographed the blackout of the city, the intensity of the heat wave and the emotion expressed and felt by the actors. In harmony, they sang “We are Powerless,” portraying the physical reality of the blackout as well as its metaphoric meaning: the powerlessness felt by a community grappling with trying to survive, and barely getting by within their social position.

Chancellor Kim Wilcox and many attendees from the Tomas Rivera Conference were in the audience during last Friday’s performance, which served as the culmination of what the conference achieved — the power of what the arts and humanities can communicate through the lens of the Latino experience. As soon as members of the audience walked into the arts studio theater, they become instantaneously immersed and transported within space and time to El Barrio. The buildings were covered with colorful graffiti-ridden art in the decaying and fading brick structures, transporting the audience to the inner-city slums. This contextualized the reality of what El Barrio represents: the economic struggling residents facing issues of the unique immigrant experience, with the universal desires and dreams of getting out and making a place for themselves in the city that epitomizes the meritocracy of the American dream.

The relevance of this play in the theater world — as well as the relevance of the societal issues this play evokes — made this a very apropos choice for the theater department in connecting with the diverse UCR community they are performing to. As Princeton professor Brian Eugenio Herrera said at the talk-back at the end of Friday’s performance, “This production told me as much about the UCR community as it did about ‘In the Heights.” What this production achieves, both in its initial creation and its reproduction at UCR, is that it offers actors and audiences alternative multi-dimensional Latino characters articulating a more authentic portrayal of the complex identities of an American Latino. In the end, “In the Heights” breaks down detrimental and damaging stereotypes that have been offered to society as a normative hegemonic discourse.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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