IN THE HEIGHTS is a neighborhood worth the visit at Moonlight Stage

Before there was HAMILTON, there was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other Tony Award winning show, IN THE HEIGHTS. Though different in story, this is was no less an impactful work as it showcases a Latin community at the top of Manhattan as they struggle to achieve the American dream and redefine what they consider home.

William Cooper Howell and the cast of IN THE HEIGHTS as Usnavi. Photo by Adriana Zuniga.

William Cooper Howell is charming and very funny as Usnavi, the young bodega owner who is trying to keep his store, his dreams of getting the girl, and traveling back to his parents’ hometown, alive. He raps with an easy flow and a lot of humor. Nicolas Alexander as his cousin Sonny is both comedic and smooth as he is Usnavi’s only employee, who is superficially lazy but actually ambitious, as well as the best wingman ever.

Carleton Bluford has a honeyed voice that fits the role of Benny, the future business man, and charming would be suitor to his bosses daughter Nina. When he, Howell, and Alexander are all interacting together they have such a great, natural chemistry it’s easy to believe they’ve all been friends for years.

Caitlyn Calfas, has a lovely and strong voice as the returning college student and pride of the neighborhood Nina. Only, she’s finding that coming home is harder when you feel like you might be letting everyone down. Rudy Martinez and Amber-Sky Skipps are Nina’s worried if overbearing parents and both are strong vocalists.

Next door to Usnavi’s bodega is Marlene Montes as the gossipy salon owner Daniela, Nadia Guevara as the sweet but slow on the uptake Carla, and Michelle Cabinian as the Vanessa, the girls of Usnavi’s dreams while she dreams of getting out of the neighborhood. Samara Otero is the glue that holds all of them together as Abuela Claudia. No neighborhood is complete without a Piragua Guy (someone who sells shaved ice with flavored syrup), played by Jonathan Arana with a delightfully antagonistic attitude towards the Mister Softee.

The opening number is a solid, high energy, number that establishes to the audience, wherever you thought you might be you’re in Washington Heights now. The music takes a lot cues from the salsa and hip-hop beats that influence this community. Full of exuberance, it helps paint the portrait of a vibrant, if struggling community.

Other standout numbers are “No Me Diga” as Daniela, Carla, Vanessa, and Nina all gossip in the salon, ” and Abuela Claudia’s “Paciencia y Fe.” Not surprisingly some of the most fun numbers are when the entire neighborhood is included like ‘96,000″ and “Carnival Del Barrio”. All of this effervescent music is skillfully and energetically played by the band led by Elan McMahan.

Directed by James Vasquez, this show starts out strong and never loses its energy. In particular I loved the little vignettes that might be happening in the background of a scene; Benny, Nina, and a driver hanging out in Roasrio’s dispatch office, or Usnavi and Sonny arguing in the bodgea about something Sonny’s taken out of the case. They are not only entertaining, but add entertaining the layers to the story of this neighborhood.

The choreography by Carolos Mendoza is bright, sharp, and invigorating with lots of Latin and hip-hop inspiration from the score. The lively choreography helps bring the spirit of this neighborhood to life.

The set by is a fully fleshed out neighborhood corner with storefronts huddled next to one another and apartments on top. This allows the set pieces and scene changes allow the scenes to flow one right into the other.

Here’s why I love IN THE HEIGHTS and this incarnation in particular; it’s a show that talks about a neighborhood that has formed a family that supports, and loves, and sometimes fights with each other. Moonlight might be, in the words of Nina “at the top of the world” to some in San Diego, but this is a top notch, fun and playful production that is worth the visit.

It reminds me of neighborhoods where I have lived in San Diego, people from everywhere have come here to form a community. You might hear some languages other than English, but the friends and the food are always delightful, and for goodness sake, if there’s a Piragua guy around then buy something!

IN THE HEIGHTS is playing at Moonlight Stage Productions through September 30th at the Moonlight Ampitheatre. For ticket information and showtimes go to www.moonlightstage.com

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