Terrific Production of ‘In the Heights’
The Kaimuki High School Performing Arts Center (KHSPAC) began 30 years ago with a production of West Side Story. With their new production of In the Heights, they are “returning” to Manhattan, but to its most northerly section in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. This hip-hop musical, which won the Tony for best musical in 2008, is much lighter in tone than the earlier musical, and features young love, problems between generations, and decisions about when to stay in the barrio (the Hispanic neighborhood) and when to go. Although some of the different Hispanic nationalities bump up against each other from time to time, there are no gang wars and no violent deaths.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, who began writing the musical when he was a sophomore in college, drew on his own experiences and the language of the barrio where he grew up. In the Broadway production he played Usnavi, who serves as our narrator. You know Miranda’s name as the creator of current Broadway hit Hamilton in which he originally played the title role. He also wrote the Oscar-nominated song “How Far I’ll Go” for the animated film Moana.
Usnavi owns the bodega left to him by his parents, but he longs to return to the Dominican Republic where he was conceived. He is enamored of Vanessa but too shy at first to make the first move. Vanessa, who works in Daniela’s Beauty Salon, wants to move out of the barrio and start a new life downtown.
Benny who works at the Rosarios’ cab company is in love with the Rosarios’ daughter, Nina, who at the outset has just returned from her first year at Stanford U. in California. In other words, she has apparently managed to get out of the barrio. Her parents, Kevin and Camilla, don’t approve of Benny who is not Latino and doesn’t even speak Spanish.
Daniela is moving her salon north, across the Harlem River to the Bronx, where the rents are cheaper.
The other main character is Claudia, Usnavi’s hanai grandmother, or abuela, who raised him when his parents died. She’s been in New York City for a long time, having emigrated from Cuba with her mother. She loves to play the lottery with “Patience and Faith” (Paciencia y Fe).
The main characters each get to sing a special solo or two, and there are some big dance numbers, choreographed by Dwayne Sakaguchi, that are a pleasure to watch. I especially enjoyed the “Blackout” number, in the dark with flashlights, and the emphasis on their neighborhood as being “powerless.”
Director Michael Ng has done a phenomenal job of getting these high school kids from all over Honolulu to pull off a terrific performance, convincing the audience that they are Hispanic kids living in NYC. KHSPAC is open to students from all the public schools and I noticed, besides Kaimuki High School, Farrington, McKinley, Kalani, Mililani and other high schools as being represented in the cast. They’ve all really done an amazing job, so kudos to everybody in the cast and crew.
It’s difficult to pick out certain cast members and leave others out, but all cast members should feel very special to be a part of this “professional” production.
Matteo Mortera, who plays Usnavi, did a wonderful job, inhabiting the Miranda role and communicating all the fast and funny hip-hop lyrics. He really owned the stage.
Toshiko Davidson and Megan Boggs play the two ingenues, Nina and Vanessa. Both sing beautifully and clearly convey their individual dilemmas.
Ernor Sewell-Welle, as Benny, was convincing as a gentle giant, learning Spanish words to woo his girlfriend--and communicate with the Hispanic taxi drivers.
The actors who had to play older characters--Sydney Miyao as Abuela Claudia, and Noah Faumuina and Alyssa Reyes as the Rosario parents--managed to capture the movement and posture of an older person very well, not an easy task. Alyssa’s solo, “Enough,” when she finally takes on her stubborn husband and equally stubborn daughter, was a real audience pleaser.
Leimomi Herrell, as salon owner, Daniela, really threw herself into her role. She was sexy and charming in her singing and dancing, another audience favorite.
In smaller roles but effective and delightful were Adrian Aguinaldo as Usnavi’s cousin Sonny and George Setik as the Paragua Guy.
Sets (MJ Matsushita) and costumes (Mei Nakano) were authentic, persuasive. Congratulations to musical director Nanilisa Pascua and her fine orchestra.
I think audiences will find the talent and energy of the performances endearing, and I hope no one who is tempted to go to the show is put off by the amount of Spanish they will encounter. My high school Spanish was sufficient. Most of what was spoken or sung was either translated or clearly expressed in action. It is also possible to go to Wikipedia beforehand and get a thorough explanation of the story and even the lyrics to the songs. Not necessary, but possible. Or you could just keep going back for other performances; that seems like a good idea.