Super Summer Theatre’s ‘In the Heights’ captures the cultural zeitgeist

(From left) Kyara Isis Williams, Andrew Driovich, Jamar Thompson.
Photo: Super Summer Theatre / Courtesy

Four stars

In the Heights July 20-22 & 26-29, 8 p.m., $15-$20. Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, supersummertheatre.org.

You speak blurb-ism? Then here it is: Music? Cool. Drama? Lukewarm.

Need elucidation? Dramatic heft isn’t what lends In the Heights its theatrical weight. Credit that to hip-hop (purposely) and politics (coincidentally). Given our poisonous political climate, any staging of this 2005 ethnic portrait of New York City’s Hispanic Washington Heights ’hood can now be perceived as a kick in the ass to the more extreme adherents of Trumpism. Post-election, this zesty tapestry functions as a defiant, multicultural wake-up roar that—though more potent musically than narratively—declares that immigration already makes America great.

That alone is reason to see First Step Productions’ energetic mounting of creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton, Tony-winning barrio valentine on the Spring Mountain Ranch stage. One glance at Joaquin Ayala’s flavorful set—bodega, street art, graffiti-smeared store grates, front stoops, crumbling bricks and fire escapes in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge—drops you into the core of Latino life there, and the book commingles English with bursts of Spanish.

Rafts of soap bubbles float through the intermission-less production touching on dreams and dilemmas: Will bodega owner Usnavi and his abuela (grandma) return to the Dominican Republic? Will he find romance with pretty Vanessa, who yearns to escape the barrio? Will aspiring Nina conjure up enough money and guts to return to Stanford University after a tough freshman year—and can her car service-owning parents help while struggling to accept her black beau? Oh, and who holds the winning lottery ticket Usnavi realizes he has sold?

Supporting characters with no real story arcs dart in and out, no serious conflicts arrive until an hour in and most pop gently like those proverbial bubbles. Under Keith Dotson’s direction, actors try adding quirky edges to broadly drawn character types. Yet the way their rotating backstories are treated like a narrative pinwheel, they blend into a dizzying kaleidoscope rather than a traceable dramatic journey, minimizing our emotional investment.

Notable impressions within character limitations are registered by Austin Champion’s geeky-cool Usnavi; Kyara Isis Williams’ pluck-powered Nina; Andrew Driovich as Nina’s devoted, pigheaded dad; and Francesca Camus as salon owner Daniela, providing brassy comic relief. Revel mostly in Manuel’s exuberant salsa/soul/rap score—rife with cheeky wit and nimble rhymes—and local choreographer Rommel Pacson’s dance dynamism that practically launches performers airborne.

That’s where In the Heights flies—a sensual, uplifting, life-affirming explosion. Yes, its tone candy-colors inner-city grit without exposing its raw underbelly. But this is an ethnic celebration, not a sociological document. You leave In the Heights connecting less with characters than with an entire culture. That ripples far longer and wider into our national ethos. We can dream that it someday ripples into a tsunami.

Tags: Theater

Steve Bornfeld

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