San Diego Musical Theatre Delivers an Amazing Production of In The Heights

With a Superb Cast and Ensemble Who Made The Musical Their Own 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

The Cast of San Diego Musical Theatre's Production of In The Heights. Photo Ken Jacques

It has been a while since a local theatre company in San Diego staged a production of In The Heights. An ambitious musical theatre project to produce due to Andy Blankenbuehler's high-level choreography, number of cast members, and ensemble. In the Heights is the musical that truly showcased Lin-Manuel Miranda's talents, (wayyy before Hamilton and Disney's Encanto) being responsible for the concept, music, and lyrics with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman. It had its first performance in 2005 and in 2008 won four Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Orchestrations, Best Choreography, and Best Original Score. One of the novelties here was to mix hip hop and Latin rhythms both in music and choreo, having as a result, a hot and spicy musical with amazing dance moves as well as a storyline revolving around only Latin American characters, a diverse cast and creative team.

The story takes place in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan with a high Latin American population also known as 'Little Dominican Republic'. Usnavi (Sebastian Montenegro) is the owner of the corner bodega and along with his younger, loudmouth cousin Sonny (Charlie Orozco) takes care of the coffee (café con leche), newspaper, and lottery needs of the neighborhood. That includes the Rosario's Kevin (Berto Fernández) and Camila (Daisy Martinez) who own a Taxi dispatch service and are parents to Nina (Vanessa Orozco) who has always been a star student and "the one who made it out" like the song Breathe says, she went to Standford to college but has dropped out due to economic issues, has not told her parents, and is back in New York. Benny (Jordan Markus) works as a dispatcher and always has had a crush on Nina but Kevin will not have it because he is not Latin American. The neighborhood salon where all the chisme happens is run by Daniela (Lena Ceja) and her employees Carla (Liliana Rodriguez) who is very innocent and Vanessa (Arianna Villa), Usnavi's (not so) secret crush and very frustrated with the lifestyle she leads, wanting to make more money and get out of the barrio. You cannot have your Latino neighborhood without everyone's abuelita. Abuela Claudia (Analía Romero) looks after everybody and took Usnavi under her wing when his parents died. There is also Graffiti Pete (Tommy Tran) who is a thug with a good heart that tags the neighborhood with his artistic creations and the Piragua guy (Ramiro Garcia Jr.) with his crushed ice cart filled with wonderful flavors. Nina walks around the barrio saying hello to everybody, crushes on Benny too, all hell breaks loose when she tells her parents that she dropped out AND is seeing Benny, Usnavi gets the courage to ask Vanessa out while the salon ladies get ready to move to the Bronx because the barrio is too expensive due to gentrification, the corner bodega sells a winning lottery ticket of $96,000 dollars and during a heat wave, someone passes away changing the course of a couple of characters.

Analía Romero is Abuela Claudia in SDMT's Production of In The Heights. Photo Ken Jacques

SDMT did an amazing job with a superb cast and ensemble. There is this thing in the regional theatre world all over the country where productions tend to hire talent from out of state, usually New York or Chicago with the excuse that "the fit is not there" which is a lie. So, another great aspect of this production is that they are focusing on young artists showcasing the up-and-coming talent in the region as well as other artists that we have not seen that often on stage or ever before. I mentioned it in the blogview regarding SDMT's previous production of Catch Me if You Can, the impressive work done regarding the stage design in the small space, is totally note-worthy. It happened with this production as well. Mathys Herbert's set design had everything finely set out: the balconies, the dispatch, the corner bodega, and the salon displaying the famous exes featured in all of Lin Manuel Miranda's musicals. The choreographer Laurie Muñiz had a tough task to pull as this is not an easy choreography to replicate and she did it marvelously and made it her own, adding her touches. There is a flamenco spark on there with a red fan and everything. Not Latin American but still, it was a nice touch.

Carlos Mendoza's direction is tight and the leads are strong with potent vocals and nailing down these now iconic roles. Sebastian Montenegro as Usnavi is great, charming, and funny. I appreciated his rap style where he takes his pace and you can make out all the words easily. Vanessa Orozco as Nina is a total sweetheart with an amazing voice, making a great duo and harmony with Jordan Markus who plays Benny. Orozco has a bachelor's in Biology and Spanish and she works as lab support. I find that to be fascinating...Lena Ceja as Daniela is definitely one of the strongest with an intense voice and range as well as comedic sass. Obviously, Berto Fernández as Kevin knocked the role right out of the park. The song "Inútil" where Kevin shares some family history with the audience and how he came to New York is full of feelings and is not an easy song to interpret. It is one of my favorites from this musical and Fernández did it perfectly. The Rosarios are a power couple, the actress playing Camila has to be up to par and  Daisy Martinez also nailed it. Sidenote, I was very offended when -spoiler alert- they killed off Camila for the motion picture. Such a strong character! Also with an amazing and strong song titled "Enough". Martinez delivers. All the talent in this production has an amazing voice, the salon ladies, Arianna Villa as Vanessa and Liliana Rodriguez as Carla. Villa also makes Vanessa her own and gifts the audience with a cool modulated voice as well as stunning dance moves. Rodriguez is great also displaying a wonderful voice however, her Carla I believe is a bit too ditsy. This is probably a direction aspect. Yes, the character does not get it most of the time but she is not dumb necessarily. I noticed the same with Sonny. Again, great vocals with Charlie Orozco but a little caricaturesque versus passionate or overspoken. Analía Romero as the beloved Abuela Claudia, well, P to the Power! and no wonder, a private music instructor with a Master´s in Afro-Latin music. Just wow. And particularly her track of Paciencia y Fé a key phrase in the musical and an amazing song about Abuela Claudia's childhood and how she abruptly left her hometown La Víbora in Cuba to come to New York. The first half includes a gorgeous, original, and touching choreography that featured women dancers all in white and barefoot. It was movingly flawless.

Ramiro Garcia Jr. as the Piragua Guy. SDMT's Production of ITH. Photo Ken Jacques
I always say to never underestimate the role of the Piragüero as it is a small but mighty one with vocal demands. Ramiro Garcia Jr. embraces the Piragua guy and gives sass as well along with amazing musical interpretation. Same with the Grafitti Pete role. Tommy Tran does a wonderful job with killer moves. 

I feel SDMT started out back in the day with a lot of love and passion for musical theatre productions did a great job, then lost their way a bit in the inclusion and diversity department to then come back like the Fenix stronger and better. The productions that they are working with now are on fire. Well crafted, well cast, and rounded out. Congratulations where it is due.

If you are an In The Heights fan, this is the production for you and if you have never seen it, this, is the production for you!

The wonderful and amazing ensemble members for this production who are also under studies and surely amazing are: Wes Dameron, Brian Osuna , Domo D’dante , Jamaelya ,Destiny Denny, Brianna Muñiz ,Shantal Vella, Tina Robin, Adelaida Martínez, Melba Novoa, and Edwin Rodriguez.

Music Director is Richard Dueñez Morrison. Lighting Design by Michelle Miles, Sound Design by Derek Brener, Costume Design by Janet Pitcher, Property Master Heather Longfellow, Wig & Hair Design – Albee Alvarado, and the Stage Manager is Paul Morgavo.

In The Heights is currently playing until June 5. Tickets range from $40-$75 dollars. 

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