WBT Reaches Thrilling New 'Heights'

Tony-winner marks regional premiere in Westchester

Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 7:00 am By: Kathryn Kitt Source: Journal News
In the Heights” — Lin-Manuel Miranda’s winner of the 2008 Tony Award for best musical — is making a triumphant New York regional premiere at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford.

John Fanelli, founder of the producing Standing Ovation Studios in Armonk, directs the show, which features a combination of local Westchester talent, cast members from the national  tour and some players from the Broadway run.

This production will have you dancing, rapping and clapping as it celebrates the immigrant experience of Washington Heights. Choreographer Morgan Marcel consulted with original choreographer (and Tony-winner) Andy Blankenbuehler to recreate the original dancing from the show. It clearly paid off: The dancing is quite spectacular and energetic.

The superb cast is led by Arielle Jacobs, who played the character of Nina on Broadway and in the national tour.

Nina, whose parents run a car-service company, gets a scholarship o Stanford but needs to work to pay for books. The first person from her tight-knit neighborhood to attend college, she soon finds herself falling behind in her academics and takes a leave of absence — without telling her parents.

Perry Young plays Usnavi, the bodega-owning narrator and heart of the community in the “Heights.” Christina Aranda plays Abuela Claudia, the surrogate grandmother of Usnavi and matriarch of the neighborhood. FaTye (of Dobbs Ferry) plays Benny, the paramour of Nina, an African-American who feels at a disadvantage in the Latino community and who happens to work for Nina’s parents, Camila (Nicole Paloma Sarro) and Kevin Rosario (Benjamin Perez). Meanwhile, Usnavi is trying to woo Vanessa (the sassy Gizel Jimenez), who dreams of renting her own apartment away from the “Heights” Comedic support is provided by Piragua Guy (Joey Sanzaro from Pleasantville) and Sonny (Greg Laucella).

Steve Loftus’ set design is complete with the George Washington Bridge in the background and the infrastructure of the stores in the barrio. Maria Castaldo gives authenticity to the characters with her colorful costumes. Musical direction is by Shelton Becton who gives the vibrant score the right amount of spice. The ensemble singing is thrilling — particularly in the show-stopping numbers “96,000” and “The Club/Fireworks.” There were moments — perhaps due to the rapid wordplay in the rapping numbers — when some of the diction got lost in the sound design. However, the second act seemed to have a better balance.

“In the Heights” paints a picture of a neighborhood that has provided comfort and uncertainty for its residents, ultimately giving way to conflicts and tragedy that challenge their sense of familiarity. Each character yearns to move on from the neighborhood. When tragedy hits, it throws their world upside down. There are traces of “West Side Story”  and “Rent” throughout the story and score, but the show seems a lot brighter and more hopeful.

With a superb cast and a solid creative team, this show  is not to be missed.