For the fourth year in a row, San Diego Repertory Theatre has partnered with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts on a musical production. In the Heights, which follows Hairspray, The Who’s Tommy and last year’s Zoot Suit, may be the biggest crowd-pleaser in the bunch, and with good reason. Dazzling choreography by Javier Velasco and a robust, streetwise performance by Jai Rodriguez as a Dominican-born bodega owner launch the Rep’s new season with energy and spirit.
Lin-Manuel Miranda conceived and composed the music and lyrics for the Tony Award-winning (in 2008) musical, with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes. At the Rep, Sam Woodhouse directs a production that includes more than 30 performers on stage and a 20-piece orchestra (musical direction by the SDSCPA’s Andrew Bearden). SDSCPA students appear in both the ensemble and the orchestra, and it all adds up to a celebratory evening that literally has cast members dancing in the aisles.
The dancing and the musical numbers that showcase Rodriguez’s superb rapping skills are the chief reasons to celebrate this production. The story, about the changes in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York and the changes within the hearts and minds of that neighborhood’s extended family of friends, relatives and lovers, is a busy one. Moreover, there are some familiar twists and turns: the girl whose parents don’t approve of her boyfriend, the boy who thinks he isn’t good enough for the girl of his dreams, the immigrant son of a farmer pursuing the American Dream of his own business. That we’ve heard some of these stories before doesn’t detract from the likability of In the Heights, which traffics neither in violence nor in moralizing. Besides Rodriguez’s good-hearted Usnavi, we meet and quickly come to care about everyone’s grandma, Abuela Claudia (Susan Denaker), about star-crossed lovers Nina (Chelsea Diggs-Smith) and Benny (Desmond Newson), and even about the neighborhood hawker of piraguas (a Puerto Rican icy treat), played by Victor Chan.
The Washington Heights-neighborhood set by Sean Fanning is a stunner, and when the action spills into the theater aisles, the effect is transformative. You are there, and what’s more you’re glad you are.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat