— Photo credit: David Cooper
IN THE HEIGHTS
In the Heights is the hottest, hippest show of this Vancouver spring. Bill Millerd’s Arts Club production at the Stanley employs an energetic, highly polished ensemble of excellent singers and dancers who joyfully embody this terrific Tony Award winning musical about a Hispanic neighbourhood in New York. Though it doesn’t have much of a plot, the show has a dynamic, youthful, 21st century appeal. And its American Dream story of first- and second-generation immigrants struggling to make it in the city has real resonance for our own community.
Set in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan (Ted Roberts’ handsome, functional set features a panorama of the George Washington Bridge looming over an expansive street scene), the story revolves around characters from Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban backgrounds. Usnavi (Luc Roderique), who also musically narrates, owns a grocery store. His young cousin Sonny (Caleb Di Pomponio) works with him and they hang out with graffiti artist Pete (Michael Culp). Next door to Usnavi’s bodega is a salon run by gossip queen Daniella (Irene Karas Loper) with her two employees Carla (Julia Harnett) and Vanessa (Elena Juatco), the beautiful, unhappy girl all the guys want.
Across from the salon is the apartment of sweet, elderly Abuela (Sharon Crandall), who mothers her young neighbours, and beside her is a limo service run by Kevin Rosario (Francisco Trujillo) and his wife Camila (Catriona Murphy). Their daughter Nina (Kate Blackburn) is the first kid on the block to go to college. Home from her difficult freshman year at Stanford, Nina develops a romance with the Rosario’s non-Hispanic employee Benny (Chris Sams). The Piragua Guy (Michael Antonakos) sells Hispanic slushies, and dancers Julio Fuentes and Alexandra Maclean round out the neighbourhood chorus.
The characters struggle with issues of money, romance, family and, in the case of Abuela, health, with almost all the conflicts positively resolved – one of the things that sets this show apart from the somewhat similar but more politically charged Rent. The resilience of the community is reaffirmed at the end.
I love everything about this production. There’s not a weak link in the relatively no-name Arts Club cast. We’ve seen some of these performers before, but few in featured roles. Juatco, fabulous and gorgeous as Vanessa, is probably the most notable. Roderique has been around for a while with a couple of seasons in support at Bard, but here his Usnavi is front and centre; he shows himself to be a charismatic lead who can sing and rap with authority. New to me, Blackburn and Sams shine as Nina and Benny. Blackburn has a spectacular voice. Crandall sings the roof off as Abuela. Di Pomponio and Loeper show great comic chops.
And the dancing – wow! Grooving to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s snappy Latin-inflected music, the muscular choreography by Lisa Stevens is spectacular. And the dancers—especially Culp, Fuentes, Hartnett, Juatco and MacLean—wouldn’t seem out of place at a Beyonce concert.
Ken Cormier’s offstage band works seamlessly with the singers and dancers. Carmen Alatorre’s costumes are perfect –- authentic and sexy but never trashy.
I’ll be interested to see how the Stanley’s older, straighter audience responds to such a youth-oriented piece. They should bring their kids to this really great show.