Celebrations abound this weekend—from Valentine’s Day to the Brazilian Carnaval. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for a night out at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square to experience the warmth and realties of a Manhattan-based Latino neighborhood through the vibrant rhythms of salsa, meringue and hip hop during my first off-Broadway performance of the Tony-award winning musical In the Heights.
The new musical, which hit Broadway in 2008, opened in Cleveland last week, and I was able to catch the first Saturday performance last night along with an energetic, nearly full house. We were only in our seats long enough to briefly appreciate the grungy, layered scenery depicting a time-worn Washington Heights neighborhood, complete with a George Washington Bridge backdrop and the realistic streaming of morning sunlight before the performance was underway.
The storyline began with Usnavi, a young bodega owner who keeps his neighborhood in coffee and lottery tickets while dreaming of someday returning to the Dominican Republic and his roots. Through his initial narrative and company-backed opening rendition of “In the Heights” with grandmother-like Abuela Claudia, love interest Vanessa, cousin Sonny, and friend Benny, Usnavi shows the close-knit neighborhood and the realties of his hard-working friends amidst their dreams of achieving something more.
Kindling these ideas that anything is possible is the daughter of local business owners, the Rosarios, who made it out of Washington Heights and away to college to pursue her dreams. An inspiration to the community, Nina Rosario has just returned home from her first year at Stanford and, through her well-performed number “Breathe,” is struggling with how to let her family and friends know that, due to a difficult year, she might not be able to return to college. She quickly reconnects with childhood friend Benny, the only non-Latino in the neighborhood, who has gained acceptance through his winning personality and hard work at the Rosario’s business. In “Benny’s Dispatch,” Nina gains enough courage to tell her parents the news.
Following the encounter, Nina’s father, Kevin Rosario, played by Daniel Bolera, who performed with the original Broadway cast, contemplates how this could have happened. During his emotion-filled performance of “Inutil (Useless),” he recounts the challenges and disappointments he went through to leave his family and start his own business in order to support his wife and daughter only to feel useless and unable to respond to this news.
The local hair salon girls, Daniela, Carla and Vanessa, lighten the mood with “No Me Diga (Tell Me Something I Don’t Know),” a fun, sexual innuendo laden performance leading into a high-energy, well-choreographed performance of “96,000” by the entire cast where the whole community contemplates what they would do with the money if they were to win the lottery.
As night sets in, Abuela Claudia, played by Elise Santora, who originated the Broadway role, sings of “Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith),” knowing she has a winning lottery ticket and the opportunity to help a few neighbors actually pursue their dreams. She joins everyone at the Rosario’s for a community dinner welcoming Nina home but the festivities are interrupted when Kevin announces he’s selling the business to pay for Nina to return to college. Challenged by his wife, who wasn’t consulted, and Benny, who’s now unemployed, Kevin attempts to defend his decision while laying down the rules for Nina’s success, having noticed the growing affection between his daughter and Benny, which he doesn’t approve.
The passion and heat drive everyone to disband the celebration and hit the town, but the combination of alcohol, heat, high emotions and jealousy charged dance numbers leads to fights breaking out, a blackout and everyone getting lost in the chaos as fireworks go off overhead in a brilliant display of stage lighting effects. The curtain falls on Benny and Nina locked in a passionate embrace.
The second act opens on Benny and Nina enjoying the “Sunrise” as a new day unfolds as they bask in their newly consummated love. As Abuela Claudia and Usnavi make plans to divvy the lottery winnings and leave the city in “Hundreds of Stories,” the Rosarios continue their family struggles as Camila Rosario calls on her husband and daughter to realize how their actions are affecting the hopes and dreams of everything their family has worked to achieve in “Enough.”
Trying to lift everyone’s spirits despite the emotions and heat, Daniela leads the company in preparing for the neighborhood’s own “Carnaval de Barrio,” to celebrate life, the holiday and the lucky fortune of Usnavi and Abuela Claudia. However, the festivities are cut short as the news trickles out that Abuela Claudia has passed away. In a tear-inducing performance of “Everything I Know,” Nina and Usnavi remember times gone by that Abuela Claudia tracked in her picture books, realizing the struggles they’ve faced have been matched by the laughs and love the community has experienced together.
As the characters resolve their conflicts, profess their feelings for one another and make final life-altering decisions based on everything they’ve learned, everyone finds happiness and humor in moving forward and banding together as they continue to find meaning and purpose In the Heights.
The musical featured engaging roles and stellar vocals by leading cast members, several of whom performed in the original Broadway performance of In the Heights, backed by at times emotionally charged at times laugh-out-loud comedic antics by supporting cast members, especially Sonny.
Although I was sometimes struggling to keep up with the hip-hop and Spanish-infused lyrics, the exciting set and choreography paired with excellent acting held my interest in the storyline. Although not the traditional choreography and music of time-tested musicals that have come and gone from Broadway, In the Heights is just what it claims to be—a new musical that tells a realistic story of life, love and the pursuit of dreams.