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In the Heights Is as Important as It Is Entertaining


The setup:

If you heard a collective "oh, thank goodness" exhale a few weeks ago, chances are it was on the day TUTS announced its cast list for In the Heights. Not because some big name had been secured to star in Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s 2008 Tony Award-winning musical about life in the predominantly Latino Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City. But because in casting Anthony Lee Medina in the lead role, they avoided a rollicking controversy loudly and publicly plaguing other theaters in the United States.

Medina describes himself as an “Actor. Singer. Puerto Rican. Cuban. Goofball.” on his website, but in this production, it’s the Puerto Rican and Cuban nods that we took the most notice of. Hallelujah, we thought, TUTS had cast a Latino actor as Usnavi, the show’s Dominican Republic immigrant narrator. Makes sense, right? After all, this is a musical written by Latinos about the Latino community experience. The show’s characters come from all walks of Latino life – Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban etc., all sharing an ethnicity and language. When it ran Off and on Broadway, it was none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda (prior to his megawatt Hamilton success) who starred in the show. So why was the Houston casting such a relief?

Because what TUTS got right, others screwed up. Or so some folks think. It started when Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre cast a white man in the lead. Not cool, many cried! Whitewashing, other’s shouted! This is a show about the issues Latinos face because of gentrification, many pointed out. Social media got involved. So did the traditional press. There was even a townhall meeting held by community organizers and attended by the Chicago cast members. Who has the right to tell whose story, was the question being asked.

Then the controversy went southwest for a different albeit similar reason. At Phoenix Theatre’s production of In the Heights, the role of Usnavi was given to an Iranian-born actor. Now there were cries of brownwashing — accusing producers of simply putting a “brown” person in the role and thinking that it was good enough. Again, heated discussions of who gets to tell a particular community’s story ignited.

Regardless of where you land in this complicated debate (best available actor for the job or best actor who can authentically tell the story, to oversimplify), perhaps we can all celebrate that the spores of controversy haven’t attached themselves to the Houston production. I for one am thrilled this casting issue is something we get to discuss only in theory re our own hometown In The Heights. For the record, not only has a Latino actor been cast in the lead, but the show boasts 20 Latino cast members out of 23 performers onstage (the other three are African-American). However, an audience comes to a show to be entertained, and so as the curtain rises, let’s put aside the discussion for now and keep our fingers crossed that entertained we shall be.

The execution:

As the sun sets on a blistering hot July 4 in Washington Heights, the hip young Latinos are dancing up a storm at the neighborhood nightclub. Guys are making their moves on the ladies. Women are strutting their stuff and fending off the boys. The drinks are flowing, the music is banging, the energy is pumping… that is, until the power goes off. It’s a neighborhood-wide blackout and it sends every character into disarray while treating us to a whirlwind Act One final number (The Club/Fireworks). The whole scene takes about ten minutes, a long time in musical land, but a long time’s okay when it’s a riot act of explosive choreography (re-created from the original production by Jose-Luis Lopez) and ingenious direction (by Nick DeGruccio) that winds us up and leaves us buzzing with intensity for the entire intermission.

But a great number isn't anything without the characters that are in it. The truth is, showstopper aside, the reason we’re so energized is that we care about these folks. In fact, we’ve spent the first act falling in love with each and every one of them.

There’s Usnavi (Medina) a sweet, love-struck bodega owner trying to keep his business afloat amid changing tides. The woman he loves, Vanessa (Chelsea Zeno), has dreams of moving downtown to a nicer area, but a bad credit rating keeps foiling her plans. Usnavi’s young cousin Sonny (Philippe Arroyo) helps out at the bodega but would rather be chasing the ladies. Nina (Michelle Beth Herman), the smart daughter of local cab company owners Kevin (Danny Bolero) and Camila (April Ortiz), has secretly dropped out of Stanford because working to pay for books got in the way of her studies. Benny (Blaine Krauss), an African-American “token Latino,” works for Kevin, but hopes to open his own business someday and earn Nina’s love. Local beauty salon owner and harmless gossip hound Daniela (Isabel Santiago) is moving her shop out of the area because of rising rents as gentrification creeps ever closer. Finally there’s Abuela Claudio, beloved godmother figure to them all.

In the Heights may not give us multifaceted characters – some dream of going back home, some dream of better lives for their children, some are trying to figure out where they belong and everyone is wondering who bought the winning lottery ticket from Usnavi’s store, all of this in easily digestible bites. But what we do get are close-knit characters who feel authentic. They live in an area that’s real to them (kudos to scenic designer Anna Louizos for creating a stunningly realistic Washington Heights storefront and brick walk-up apartment streetscape set). They speak and sing in a nicely balanced combination of Spanish and English that’s accessible to everyone in the audience. Their musical expressions are a mixture of rap, hip-hop, Latino medleys and good old-fashioned Sondheim-esque numbers that illustrate the traditional and modern sensibilities of the community.

How could we not heartbreakingly fall in love with Kevin during his solo, Inutil (Useless), as he questions his manhood because of his inability to pay his daughter's way through school? Daniela may be a yenta, but as she sings and sashays in No Me Diga (Don’t Tell Me), we are warmed that her gossiping is mostly for good. Adoration oozes out of our pores as Abuela presents homesick memories of her youth in Cuba in Hundreds of Stories. We nod in solidarity and admiration when Camila demands an end to her family’s fighting in Enough. We even get the warm fuzzies for the Piragua guy as he sings of his efforts selling shaved ice treats in the shadow of the corporate soft-serve trucks.

The love in this production is earned not just by Miranda and Hudes’s inclusively endearing story set to song; it’s earned by a cast ready to do it justice. Among the long list of notables is standout Krauss as a quick-rapping Benny, showing cool charisma and respectful romance that would make anyone swoon. Santiago as Daniela is dolled up with the hair and body that don’t quit, but it’s her stage presence as a "get it done and have fun" type of gal that glues our eyes to her. But really, it’s Sonny who steals the show in this production. Young, kinda cool but trying to be cooler, and prone to goofiness in the process, Sonny, as played by Arroyo, poaches the majority of laughs in this show. He’s like a cross between an untrained puppy and Jay of Jay and Silent Bob fame, if Jay were Latino and the puppy liked hump dancing with short-skirted girls. It’s a wonderfully fluid performance that offers endearing levity to balance some of the more melodramatic moments.

So what of Medina as Usnavi, the character/actor that everyone seems laser-focused on? There’s no doubt Medina has the sweet part of Usnavi down pat — we watch in agony as he can’t seem to get his nerves together enough to actually woo Vanessa properly. But Usnavi is more than just a slightly awkward, lovely guy; he’s also the narrator of our story, the one who ushers us into the narrative of the neighborhood. It’s here where Medina falters.

In a voice well syncopated to deliver Miranda’s quick-fire rap narration, but not strongly mellifluous enough to be heard above the music or chorus at times, Medina’s words get lost in the shuffle. Too often we get the gist but not the details, rendering Usnavi a character that's lovable but not as strongly rooted for or listened to as he should have been. Frankly, had the rest of the cast not been so outstanding, with Medina’s lack of prowess, we might not have been able to engage in the story as well as we did.

In fairness, sound mixing at TUTS has been an issue in the past for more productions than we can mention. So perhaps Medina’s garble could be fixed by a good technical tweak. If that’s the case, I certainly hope they figure it out, since at present, Median’s halfway there in this role. Surely they can give a guy a hand and see if he can get ten toes in.

The verdict:

Just a couple of days ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his father gave an interview to NBC on Latino heritage through generations. In describing his youth growing up as one of the only Latinos in his school, Lin had this to say: “When you feel like an outsider, you go, 'Let me show you where I'm from.'"

This one sentence perfectly captures the magic of In the Heights. If we are not Latino, we come to the show to see another culture and what it’s made of. If we are Latino, we come to see our experience reflected and shown to others. Either way, we’re watching stories that are universal to us all. We all want our children to do better. We all are struggling to find our place in this world. We all want love.

And at the same time, we are watching stories that are unique to a community. What does it mean to be Latino in an ever-gentrifying neighborhood? How does ethnicity define our prospects for success? What does a foreign motherland mean for our identity?

The sameness and the difference in these considerations are what makes In the Heights such essential viewing. We get affirmation and we get schooled, all of us. And we get thoroughly entertained in the process.

TUTS has said, under new artistic stewardship, that it wants to be more reflective of the diverse community of Houston. I say In the Heights, cast this attentively, slight imperfections and all, is a terrific step in that direction. Take note, other companies: The gauntlet has been thrown. Please pick it up and run with it. We all thank you in advance.

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