New Production Reaches 'The Heights' of Westchester Broadway Theatre

Published: Monday, February 25, 2013 7:00 am By: Colette Connolly Source: Examiner News

A cacophony of powerful voices, Latin pop tunes, rap numbers and a wealth of energetic dance moves sums up “In the Heights,” the Tony award-winning musical that made its regional debut at Elmsford’s Westchester Broadway Theatre last week.

The show, which explores three days in the lives of characters in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, comes to the WBT stage by way of Standing Ovation Studios, a performing arts training space in Armonk. SOS is also the home of the Lighthouse Youth Theatre program, which brought “Big River” to the dinner theater stage last year.

Director John Fanelli brings together Westchester talent and cast members from the show’s national tour, which finished last summer, and even some from its Broadway run, which ended in 2011. “In the Heights” is the company’s first main stage production in 2013.

Adding to the excitement of the Feb. 13 opening night was a brief appearance by the show’s musical creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the lyrics and music for the show.

Based on the book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, “In the Heights” opens up with a toe-tapping rap performance by Usnavi, played by Perry Young, the likeable bodega owner whose store is a pit stop for everyone in the neighborhood.

As the lyrics role effortlessly off Young’s tongue and his body moves fluidly to the opening title number, we get a sense of the neighborhood’s complexities. Overdue bills and other daily troubles afflict the struggling residents who can’t figure out whether they want to stay or go.

Central to the story is the return of Nina, played by Arielle Jacobs, an original national tour cast member. Nina fulfills the hopes of many in the neighborhood because she has gone to college at Stanford University. However, it becomes clear that Nina has lost her academic scholarship and won’t be returning to California. Holding down two jobs to pay for books was too much for the young freshman and she must now tell her parents, Camila (Nicole Paloma Sarro) and Kevin Rosario (Benjamin Perez). It’s a difficult decision and Jacobs’ stellar performance of “Breathe,” conveys the disappointment and anguish she feels.

The show quickly shifts to Benny (played by Fayte and who also starred in “Big River”), the young African-American man who has worked since childhood for the local gypsy cab company owned by Nina’s parents. Benny’s place in the heavily Spanish-speaking neighborhood is uncomfortable at best, and Fayte does a good job of displaying his ambivalence toward a community he knows deep down he can’t be fully part of.

There’s an undercurrent of disappointment felt by all, even the sassy hair salon owner Daniela (Ariana Valdes) who eventually closes the shop and moves to Queens. There’s also Usnavi’s surrogate grandmother, Abuela Claudia (Christina Aranda), who acknowledges the struggles her family has endured since moving to the United States, as well as the difficulties for Vanessa (Gizel