Those looking to add “a little bit of cinnamon” to their theatergoing should head to GALA Hispanic Theatre’s current production of In the Heights. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony Award-winning musical about ordinary Latino families exploring what it means to belong takes on new resonance thanks to a new Spanish translation of the lyrics.
While Spanish-language versions of In the Heights have been produced in Latin America, this production is distinctive for several reasons: It is the first Spanish version of the show in the United States, it is the first Spanish translation sanctioned and approved by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and it is directed and choreographed by Luis Salgado, Assistant Latin Choreographer on the original Broadway production of In the Heights.
Dominican writer Amaury Sanchez translated the script, with adaptations by Salgado and Salgado Productions. Salgado explained to me that they looked at “cultural, psychological, and emotional factors” in deciding when to employ each language with the goal of using language to unify and celebrate the diverse cultures and origins represented by the cast and characters. The result is a show that is about 60% Spanish, 40% English.
The character of Benny (Vaughn Ryan Midder) becomes the show’s English anchor. Those familiar with In the Heights will remember that a source of plot tension is that Nina’s father Kevin Rosario (an emotional performance from José Fernando Capellán) disapproves of Nina and Benny’s budding romance. Benny doesn’t speak Spanish and when Kevin accuses him of “not speaking our language” the implication is more than merely linguistic. Kevin sees Benny as an outsider because he doesn’t share the immigrant experience.
Lin-Manuel Miranda did an excellent job in the original In the Heights of mixing in Spanish in a way that didn’t alienate English-only speakers. As a native English speaker who is fairly proficient in Spanish, I was eager to see if this version would employ a similar sense of ease and playfulness that made the original such a game-changer in awakening people to new ways to employ language in musical theater.
The result? On a purely emotional level, it was pure joy to see cultures come together through language. It’s an important statement to make in this time of political exclusion and division, and this production creates an exuberant celebration of life and identity delivered through language and music.
At times, however, I did feel that the quick back and forth with the lyrics (often melding Spanish and English within the same line) made it hard to know what language to listen for. I also felt that in some instances the clever rhyming in the original script was lost in translation.
Music Director Bobby McCoy, worked closely with Salgado to devise orchestrations that complimented the new lyrics. His ten-piece band became a tower of sound backing up the show’s major dance numbers like “96,000” and “El Número de la Discoteca/The Club.”
For me, four powerhouse female performances stood out in this show. Verónica Álvarez Robles (Vanessa), Laura Lebrón (Nina), Michelle Ríos (Abuela Claudia), and Scheherezade Quiroga (Daniela) each showed off exceptional vocal skills and crafted unique and compelling characters.
Verónica Álvarez Robles’ Vanessa was sassy and seductive. One could easily see why all the men in “The Club” scene would be falling all over her. Laura Lebrón’s Nina was intelligent and endearing and it was a joy to watch the tender relationship develop between her and Benny in songs such as “When You’re Home” and “Amanecer.”
Juan Luis Espinal as Usnavi navigated the rapid-fire lyrics with ease. I enjoyed his portrayal of the loveable bodega owner, but as the show’s narrator, I felt that he underplayed some crucial plot pivots. If I hadn’t been very familiar with the show, I would have totally missed the introduction of the lottery into the plot that sets up the song “96,000.”
Vaughn Ryan Midder as Benny did a great job channeling the rhythm of the show. He was fun to watch in “La Base de Benny/Benny’s Dispatch” and he wore his heart on his sleeve whenever Nina was around.
My favorite number in the show was “Carnaval Del Barrio.” Salgado’s direction and choreography did an excellent job creating the feeling of pride of cultural heritage celebrated in the song. It was a joy to see skilled actors from the US, the Caribbean, South American and Europe come together in this celebration of identity. Scheherazade Quiroga, who played Daniela, stood out on this song, and her strong vocal skills and comedic timing added immensely to the production overall.
Sound and Lighting Designers Roc Lee and Christopher Annas-Lee did a great job enhancing the blackout and fireworks scenes. Robert Croghan’s costumes were reminiscent of the original production and in keeping with the feel of the barrio.
The setting did such a good job of replicating New York in summer, with its bodegas, hair salons and taxi dispatches, that by the time the Piragua Guy (vocal powerhouse Felix Marchany) comes through with his cart of snow cones, you can almost feel the sweat of a hot New York day forming on your brow.
In the current political climate of exclusion and wall-building, this version of In the Heights offers a chance to remember that although we come from diverse backgrounds, we all deal with the same day-to-day problems of wanting to feel at home, finding love and supporting our families.
GALA Hispanic Theatre is a DC treasure, offering monolingual and bilingual residents alike the opportunity to experience the best that our Latin American brothers and sisters bring to the United States. I look forward to seeing this show at least once more during its run!
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minute, including a 15-minute intermission.
Who’s in Town?: Director and Choreographer Luis Salgado, Director and Choreographer of GALA Theatre’s Spanish Language ‘In the Heights’ by Nicole Hertvik.
In the Moment: ‘In the Heights’ (Spanish Version) at GALA Hispanic Theatre by David Siegel.