SALT LAKE CITY — From the moment I walked into Pioneer Theatre Company for their production of In the Heights, I felt like I had crossed the George Washington Bridge and entered Washington Heights, that little barrio on the northernmost part of Manhattan. From the initial, visual impact of the set (beautifully designed by G.W. Mercier), through the small (and brilliant) detail of the cast-recorded pre-show announcement, and finishing with the personality revealing costumes (again, G.W. Mercier) of the opening number, I felt immediately welcomed into this close-knit community where your neighbors are family and the ruling mantra is “paciencia y fe” — patience and faith.
In the Heights, (music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegria Hudes), was, deservedly, the darling of the theatre world a few years ago. Winner of multiple Tony Awards in 2008 (including Best Musical), the story follows members of the Washington Heights barrio during a heat wave on the eve of the 4th of July. The members of this spicy and sassy community depend upon each other as they “live with just enough,” an existence that is being threatened due to the struggles of high rent and gentrification.
Director Matt August has pulled together a solid ensemble of warm, personable and often hilarious characters. Led by the charming Usnavi (the talented and enchanting Joseph Morales, reprising his role from the national tour), most of the cast succeeds in creating the distinctive and detailed personalities that make this barrio come alive. From the delightful and comic antics of Sonny (Anthony Ramos Martinez) and Daniela (Natalie Hill), to the warm, steady leadership of Abuela (Debra Cardona), the adorable and impassioned relationship between Benny and Nina (Joshua Boone and Emily Vasquez), to the show-stealing moments of Camila (Natalie Toro) and the Piragua Guy (Paul Aguirre), the audience is invited into a vivacious and entertaining neighborhood that is dealing with the ups and downs of life, love, and family.
As a musical infused with what creator Lin-Manuel Miranda calls the “endless wall of music” experienced by the predominantly Latin community of Washington Heights, the movement and dance of the production is a character all its own. Highlighting a cast that has overall strong dance abilities (with a focus on dance captain Lauren Sambataro and Emily Vasquez as the character of Vanessa), choreographer Bob Richard has done a masterful job of not only creating a few show-stopping numbers (“The Club” scene and “96,000” in particular), but in infusing the entire evening with the Latin and Hip-Hop movement that is often second nature in this neighborhood. From the larger events where the community moves together (such as “Carnaval Del Barrio”, one of the best moments of the night), to the smaller physical details (like the continuous bouncing nature of the salon girls), Richard creates a natural and entertaining rhythm for the whole community.
There are, sadly, a few missteps throughout the evening. While most tend to be some odd choices (What is the reasoning behind the placement and use of the bolero girl? Why is Nina continuously wearing sweaters when its over 100 degrees?), the biggest problem of the production lies unfortunately in the music and sound. The balance of sound levels between the different cast members, as well as the cast members and the band, struggled throughout the evening. (It did, thankfully, improve as the sound technicians adjusted mic levels throughout the performance). The music, on the other hand, was a large disappointment. While PTC did have a live orchestra, the music was thin and somewhat sloppy. With the great musical possibilities of having the live band to accentuate the vibrant, brass-infused score, it was frustrating to hear music that sounded like a track and that instead of punctuating and enlivening the performance, often managed to undercut the potential power of the moment being created on stage. I can only hope that the orchestra will get stronger as the run continues, because it is a production that deserves the full, vibrant support of a live orchestra.
Despite the few imperfections, In the Heights remains a thoroughly enjoyable and emotional evening at the theatre. Between the performances, the dance and the visual elements of the production, the audience is taken on an entertaining and moving journey into a delightful community. A community to which, at the end of the night, you may either wish you could belong to or, at the very least, have the opportunity to return.
Update: Don’t miss our interview with Natalie Hill, the Utah native playing Daniela in this production of In the Heights.