Celebrating 10 years since taking Broadway by storm with its exploration of New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, In the Heights, directed by Stephanie Klemons, takes the stage at The Kennedy Center for a limited but joyous run. The second of the new Broadway Center Stage series, this semi-staged concert production packs the vibrant musical (winner of four Tony Awards including best musical, best choreography, and best score) with passion and pride in its exploration of New York’s Latino immigrant community. With its infectious music, lyrics by the incomparable Lin-Manuel Miranda, and book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, this production of In the Heights is worthy of the anniversary it is celebrating.
There is no better place to start this review than with the charming Anthony Ramos (OBC Hamilton) as Usnavi. Both protagonist and narrator of the many stories unfolding on stage, Ramos, with his self-ascribed complicated syntax and intricate rhymes, was an endearing mixture of confidence and bashfulness often in the same song, as was the case in both the show’s opener, “In The Heights,” and “96,000.” Ramos pulled out a softer side of Usnavi that isn’t often seen, sometimes playing Usnavi’s swagger with more subtlety than normal.
His counterpart Vanessa, played by Vanessa Hudgens (Gigi), certainly had the moves to challenge Usnavi’s words as she scorched the stage with some truly sizzling dance sequences. Whether twisting or strutting or flirting, Hudgens’ strongest moments came when she tapped into Vanessa’s inner spitfire and just let it rip, particularly in “It Won’t Be Long Now” and “The Club.” I certainly wouldn’t take her on in a dance off; she had spunk in spades.
The other leading lady of the evening was the spectacular Nina, played by Ana Villafañe (On Your Feet!). Absolutely nailing the demanding vocal role of Nina, Villafañe brought innocence, vulnerability, and a determined, stubborn spirit to every scene. Standout moments were “Breathe” and “Everything I Know,” both of which I’m not ashamed to admit brought a tear to my eye.
Equally as stubborn but twice as smitten was Benny, played by J. Quinton Johnson (Hamilton). Taking on double duty as comic and crooner, Johnson’s palpable connection with Ramos was in top form in “96,000” and, with smooth riffs, he wound his way into my heart during “When The Sun Goes Down.”
But the most wonderfully surprising performance of the evening was Sonny, played by local DC actor Mateo Ferro. For a 16-year-old making his Equity debut, he more than held his own on the stage, and occasionally stole the spotlight from the larger Broadway names with his self-assured portrayal of Sonny. “In The Heights” and his verse in “96,000” were particularly notable and highlighted his natural talent at channeling his skills into his cocky character. His friend and partner in spray-paint-crime, Graffiti Pete, played by Virgil Gadson, was also a strong supporting element with more than a few pop and lock steps to keep the story flowing.
A powerhouse of ensemble members filled the stage, their revolving characters and interwoven storylines creating a feeling of authentic community in the barrio. For such a short run and with such intricate choreography, the ensemble’s ability to not only conquer the steps but infuse them with immense personality was nothing short of magical.
Taking on the considerable challenge of bringing a show such as In the Heights to life were Director/Choreographer Stephanie Klemons and Associate Director/Choreographer Alison Solomon. Their sense of flow and understanding of dramatic timing underscored the community, challenges, and choices at the heart of In the Heights. Subtle pop culture references were added (Wakanda forever) to create new moments for this 2018 audience to embrace.
Helping to bring the Washington Heights streets to life was the scenic design by Tony-nominee Anna Louizos (In the Heights), costume design by Andrea Lauer (Bring It On: The Musical), lighting design by Helen Hayes Award-nominee Cory Pattak, and sound design by Andrew Keister (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Together with the rest of the In the Heights staff and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, under the musical direction Zachary Dietz (In the Heights), it was a thrilling example of blending the concert and theater experience into one spectacular celebration of life and love.
The Kennedy Center production is the third incarnation of In the Heights to grace DC stages in the last year. Olney Theatre Center/Round House Theatre put on a joint production and GALA Hispanic Theatre mounted the first Spanish-language version of the show in 2017. Both productions garnered numerous Helen Hayes nominations. Between the current political climate and the success of Hamilton making audiences hungry for all things Lin-Manuel, it is clear that this story resonates with audiences.
In the Heights‘ unabashed celebration of Latin culture, music, and language is as joyous now as it was in 2007 when the musical first opened on Broadway. If the thunderous reception of yesterday’s performance was any indication, this show and the stories that it tells will remain with us long after the curtain falls.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission
In the Heights is part of Broadway Center Stage series and is playing through March 25, 2018, at the Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. Tickets are currently sold out for all performances, but to check for last-minute ticket availability call (202) 467-4600, or check regularly online.