William Cooper Howell (center) in "In the Heights." Photo courtesy of Moonlight Stage Productions
Tick … tick … tick …
That tick-tock you hear is the slow but steady countdown to the arrival of “Hamilton” in San Diego. The highly anticipated opening is Jan. 6 at the Civic Theatre downtown. But for now, let’s give some love to Moonlight Stage Productions in Vista, where right now, and until Sept. 30, you can catch a thrilling staging of the urban musical “In the Heights.”
What does this have to do with “Hamilton”? The music and lyrics of both shows were written by the mega-talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, maybe the hottest name in theater today. “Hamilton” struck a chord with America, but when it opened on Broadway nine years ago, “In the Heights” (with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes) didn’t fare too badly itself: the kinetic musical that mingles salsa-meringue with hip-hop, would win four Tony Awards including Best Musical, and later won a Grammy.
With reason. This is a truly infectious show, and not just the music. You get quickly wrapped up in its characters – those who live and work in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC – a spirited lot with passion for life and for each other, faith in the face of adversity, and a joyousness about music, dancing and romancing.
The San Diego Rep staged a memorable production of “In the Heights” in 2013, and Moonlight’s, directed by James Vasquez with choreography of Carlos Mendoza, is even better. Props, too, to a robust and versatile orchestra directed by Elan McMahan.
“In the Heights’” players on stage are many, but very worthy of note are William Cooper Howell as Usnavi, the story’s anchor character and resident dreamer; Marlene Montes as the sassy but indomitable unisex salon owner Daniela; and Michelle Cabinian as Vanessa, the woman of one of Usnavi’s fondest dreams.
“In the Heights” has more than spirit – it has heart. It also should tide you over if you’re fortunate to have tickets for “Hamilton.”
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.