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Review: ‘In the Heights’ at Olney Theatre Center (in a co-production with Round House Theatre)

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In a week that began with the repeal of DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – what better way to end it than with a musical about dreamers. For those children – many now young adults, among them my friends and students – of undocumented immigrants, who live, study and work in the United States without papers or a path to gain citizenship, have long been called Dreamers. And dreamers provide the dominant thread that runs through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Latin-accented musical, In the Heights. He and book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes captured the centrifugal force that has always made our nation great. The United States is a nation of immigrants: parents who sacrifice for their children, neighbors who look out for one another, strivers and hard working dreamers, all longing for better lives, if not for themselves than for their children.

The ensemble of In the Heights, co-produced by Olney Theatre Center and Round House Theatre. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The joint Olney Theatre Center/Round House Theatre production contains plenty of flash, color and fireworks thanks to Puerto Rican-born director/choreographer Marcos Santana, who was a swing for the original Broadway production, and musical director Christopher Youstra, who keeps pulses ticking with Miranda’s syncopated rhythms of Havana, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the streets of Washington Heights. There, in an authentically run-down barrio (designed by Olney artistic associate Milagros Ponce de Leon), where life gets lived out loud on front stoops and bodega storefronts, young lovers court, children of immigrants dream, parents struggle to make ends meet and a loving abuela – grandmother – watches over everyone, a street corner patron saint of the barrio.

In the Heights opened on Broadway in 2007 and won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Choreography and Best Score, propelling Miranda into the national spotlight. The musical is selling like gangbusters, Olney Theatre, where it fills the main stage with color and songs with Spanish inflections and Spanglish, has already extended its run twice and many performances are already completely sold out. Though its teeming popularity isn’t due to topicality, but because, the Miranda name carries the provenance of Hamilton, his extraordinarily successful retelling of another immigrant tale, that of one of America’s Founding Fathers – Alexander Hamilton.

Additionally, the Olney/Round House production features another tie to that Broadway wunderkind: Robin de Jesús, an original Broadway cast member, who snagged a Tony nomination for playing young radical Sonny, now plays the role Miranda originated: bodega owner Usnavi, whose raps complement the barrio beat with his heavy, nasal New York accent. Other standouts, in an exceptionally well-cast production, include Rayanne Gonzales as Abuela Claudia, mother hen to all, who with heartfelt expression for her Havana home of long ago, reveals another thread, that of dreaming for a country and culture left behind.

Hudes’ book loosely connects a number of narratives and personalities, all stitched together by their beloved, fading neighborhood in Washington Heights, nearly forgotten at the tip of Manhattan. Life is hard, the July weather hot, and tempers and hormones flair, particularly when the barrio’s brightest light, Nina (Mili Diaz, an alum of Musical Theatre Center’s young performances), returns home after losing her scholarship to Stanford. and captures the eye of Benny, her father’s longtime employee. Benny (Marquise White), though, is not like the Rosarios, at least not to father Kevin’s liking (played by Danny Bolero), for he’s not Latin. Prejudice, Miranda and Hudes suggest, comes in all forms and to all nationalities. But, it’s still a musical, and in American terms those feelings can be overcome. Love is, indeed, love.

Marquise White as Benny and Mili Diaz as Nina in Olney Theatre Center and Round House Theatre’s co-production of In the Heights. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Miranda began work on In the Heights, his first fully produced musical, while still a college student and he made good and careful study of his musical theater forebearers, with a particular hat-tip to Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story, et al), but he also gives glancing nods to Shakespeare, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, Harnick and Bock, and Jonathan Larson. And as Miranda broke new ground by creating a Broadway-caliber work that looks like America in the 21st century – where census studies predict that by 2040 many locales across the U.S. will be majority non-caucasian. Right here in Montgomery County, Maryland. – home of both Olney and Round House theaters, which celebrate their 80th and 40th seasons respectively this year – that shift has already taken place in the public schools where 30 percent of students are Hispanic, while 29 percent are white.

In a nation that is becoming browner, multilingual, and uncompromising in dreaming up a better lives for a more diverse future – Miranda has gifted the standard American musical story with a new jolt of energy in the form of Latin, reggaeton and hip-hop rhythms. The new 21st century musical tastes and sounds like the new America with flavors and beats of salsa, merengue, and hip hop pulsing infectiously and as dance-worthy as a Zumba class.

Hard as it is to note standouts, in a cast full of them, accolades go Mili Diaz as Nina, the show’s ingénue, with her sweet and powerful voice and her performance full of both innocence and strength in numbers such as “Breathe” and “Alabanza.” Tobias A. Young’s small, but not inconsequential role as the Piragua Guy – who pushes a shaved flavored ice cart – also has a rousing and insouciant number “Piragua,” that brightens a serious interlude. Nina’s mother Claudia, played by the fiery Vilma Gil, has a scene stealing moment late in act II that shows the unsinkable power of mother love. And D.C. area regular Nastascia Diaz as hair salon owner Daniela, poured into a purple dress, provides the sultriness and curves any Latin-inflected show needs. Her powerhouse voice takes the intoxicating lead on “No Me Diga” and “Carnaval del Barrio.”

Musical director Christopher Youstra leads a bright sounding ensemble, with special attention to the bass beats, clave and salsa rhythms, and brassy horns. Choreography doesn’t always thrill but when it does, it’s hard to see those dance numbers end, particularly the climactic act I nightclub scene. Other more modest connecting dance moments include some b-boying, liquid, and other hip-hop street moves, by a well-rounded chorus of dancer/singers. Costumes by Frank Labovitz suggest the barrio styles of a hot July – short shorts and sports shoes for the young street girls, skin tight dresses for Daniela’s hair salon stylists, and baggy cargo pants and t-shirts for the street men – though all the clothes are a little too new and crisp, the sneakers, unmarred by New York subway gunk, to lend the same authentic air as the street scene, with its subway grates emitting steam, a fire hydrant and two-story fire escapes that resemble old Spanish Harlem. Matt Rowe’s sounds of the city – sirens, street noises, 4th of July fireworks – create an authenticity of place as does Cory Pattak’s lighting design, that takes us from morning to night, sunshine to street lights.

In the Heights has been lauded as the first Broadway musical to highlight the lives and rhythms of first generation immigrants. I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate – there’s Rags, Pins and Needles and Ragtime, which trod similar stories of previous generations of immigrants, though from Eastern Europe, not Latin America. But this is one of a very few musicals that mines the lives, struggles and dreams of our latest – and most recently embattled population of immigrants. The dreams don’t change, only the countries of origin. In the Heights reminds us that their story is the same as those of generations of immigrants before them. It’s our American dream.

In the Heights, plays through October 22, 2017 in the Main Stage at Olney Theatre Center — 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.

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