By ROBERT DIGITALE
Has Santa Rosa Junior College shamelessly attached itself to the “Hamilton” sensation by staging a production of “In the Heights,” an earlier creation by theatrical superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda?
Actually, no. What it has done is produce a knockout version of a still relatively young musical, one that itself garnered four Tony Awards. Once more the college’s Theatre Arts Department has shown it can rise to the occasion and leave audiences smiling.
In the theatrical world, Miranda’s “Hamilton” remains the hottest ticket of the season. But if you’re going to see a community theater production this year, you would be hard pressed to find a more satisfying offering than this version of “In the Heights.” Miranda and his collaborator, the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, offer a powerful combination of rousing musicality and deft storytelling to connect audiences with the dreams of both young and old living in the Washington Heights section of modern day Manhattan.
The play, which in 2008 won a Tony for best musical, remains new for many of us. At Friday’s premiere, director John Shillington got a small response when he asked for a show of hands on how many patrons had ever heard its music. Shillington suggested the audience was in good hands with Miranda because “this man is a genius.”
“In the Heights” tells of people aching for a better life and unsure where to find it. The mostly Latino characters in the story include Usnavi, a young bodega owner who hopes to one day return to his homeland in the Dominican Republic (this role is the one Miranda himself played on Broadway). Usnavi is one cool rapper except when he’s around Vanessa, the woman he loves. With her, he’s an awkwardly comic scaredycat. The story also features Nina, the first in her family to go to college. She returns home some months after secretly dropping out of Stanford University. Her love interest is Benny, who works for her parents’ taxi company.
This foursome launch the musical, but we soon hear the stories of Nina’s parents and of Abuela Claudia, the grandmotherly figure for Usnavi, Nina and most of the neighborhood. The songs of the older folks’ struggles add a nice depth to the drama. Topping it off, the play includes plenty of crazy, colorful characters to keep things hopping.
Miranda, whose off Broadway work includes writing songs for Disney’s “Moana,” is nothing if not inventive. Here he dishes up a delightful mix of dreamy Latin beats, dizzying rap lyrics, tender ballads, hot salsa rhythms and big Broadway flourishes. The offerings are percussive, syncopated and ever so catchy. And musical director Janis Dunson Wilson and her eight-piece orchestra shine while performing them.
So does the cast, which brings a youthful energy to the songs, dancing and acting. It begins with Joseph Miranda, as Usnavi, This younger Miranda is a fine singer with a winning comedic touch. It’s hard not to hope that his character’s klutzy attempts to engage Vanessa will somehow succeed. Similarly, Sarah Wintermeyer as Vanessa, Jenna Vice as Nina and Cooper Bennett as Benny sang with beauty and confidence. (Vice and Katerina Flores alternate in the role of Nina.)
Other cast members also nailed their solos, including Jackie Diaz (Abuela Claudia) in “Paciencia y Fe,” Jordan Diomande (the Piragua Guy) in “Piragua,” Julia Kaplan (Camila, Nina’s mom) in “Enough,” and Kristina Ibarra and Shawna Jackson (Daniela and Carla) in “Carnaval del Barrio.” Every time a new character steps forward, you’re in for another treat.
Two big thumbs up for the cast, including Evan Espinoza, José del Toro, Chris Greenwood, Desmond Woodward, Ana Ochoa, Ruby Poze, Morgan Vermeulen, Rachel Anderson, Olivia Piper, Sierra Pell, Mika Shepherd, Melissa Pierre-Saint, Sarah Christensen, Amelia Parreira, Sidney McNulty, Serena Poggi, Albert McLeod, James F. Johnson, Adrian Causor, Gustavo Ceron-Mendoza, Armand Beikzadeh, Erin Galloway and Isiah Carter.
The eye-catching set by scenic designer Peter Crompton includes not only gritty storefronts and upstairs flats, but also a huge backdrop screen for projections of the George Washington Bridge (with moving wisps of clouds) and other images.
Unlike the college’s fall musicals, this play is recommended for a slightly older crowd, ages 10 and up. But it has all the polish and pizzazz of those popular annual productions. In short, it’s a rare opportunity to see a fresh and appealing show served up with such finesse.
The production continues Thursday April 27 and runs through May 7 (a 3 p.m. performance during the college’s annual Day Under the Oaks. For ticket information, click here.