WEST VALLEY CITY — When In The Heights, featuring songs by then-unknown Lin-Manuel Miranda, premiered, it won the hearts of New York City — and the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical. There have only been a few times in my life that I can say I was truly surprised in a wonderful way by a show, and In the Heights for the first time was one of those. Having lived there for a few years, the heart of the show, the community it embraced, and the love it portrayed struck my very soul. With a book written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, the show was written to provide accurate portrayals of the lives and experiences of the Hispanic community in New York City. This is why I have approached seeing productions of this show with some trepidation, especially with my desire to see the inhabitants of Washington Heights portrayed accurately in terms of casting and thematic elements.
I asked to review In the Heights for several reasons. First, I have been thrilled by the previous work at West Valley Arts and the efforts they have into the achieving artistic and creative excellence. Second, I was excited to see what director Juan Hector Pereira had in store for a New York lover like myself. Additionally, I have been a professor of multiculturalism and spent much of the last decade working in immigration and refugee human services. In my capacity as an audience goer, critic, and listener of stories of people whose cultures are different than mine, I have learned the importance of representation, and I recognize how story telling can be sacred, especially when the story may not always be directed at me.
Like Pereira, the majority of the production team of In The Heights belongs to the community on stage, and this showed in so many lovely ways. One of my very favorite scenes was the “Carnaval Del Barrio,” where the choreography of Izzy Arrieta prominently featured in an exuberant fiesta. Seeing this cast exude the energy, led by Daniela (played by the majestic Luseane Pasa, who stole the show each and every time she walked on the stage), was enough to bring tears of joy. Additionally, Carla (played delightfully by Teresa Jack) sings a line in the song in which she lists through all the countries of her mixed Latin American heritage, and ends up with “So I always say I’m from Queens!” I had brought my biracial daughter with me to this gem of a production, and she reminded me that this line is now a TikTok trend for all the biracial, BIPOC kids who feel seen by this show and the recognition of their story.
I was also taken by the set design by Jason Baldwin. Having lived in Queens and Brooklyn, I walked into West Valley Performing Arts Center and felt like I had come home. I loved the choices of using the different areas of the theatre in the round to portray the dispatch, the salon, and the fire escapes. The rest of the set pieces were on wheels, with the bodega coming in and out when needed, and the street art, which is part of the story, was perfection.
I could highlight each cast member of In the Heights and describe what they added to the production. Abuela Claudia (played by Sonia Maritza Inoa-Rosado Maughan) is such an integral part not only to the show but to the understanding of the culture. Maughn was simply outstanding in both regards. In her song “Paciencia y Fe,” there is a reveal at the end that got enough gasps from the audience. The moment was a reminder that there are too many people that have not seen this show and need to. I confess that this portrayal of Usnavi, by Pedros Flores, had to grow on me. Usnavi is awkward, and Flores was conspicuously so in the first number. But as his chemistry with the rest of cast grew, that awkwardness blossomed into wonderful, authentic relationships. Vanessa (played by Micki Martinez) interacted with Flores impeccably. Finally, Benny (played by Kirt Banks) and Nina (played by Beatriz Melo) rounded off a perfectly assembled cast.
There were over 160 highly talented BIPOC performers that auditioned for this show. Sometimes the excuse is made that Utah does not have the right level of talent to mount plays that feature diverse casts. But West Valley Arts and other companies have shown this is not the case.
In the Heights is not about me. Yet, I recognize the privilege of seeing the magic and even more so the true beauty of the story being told by the people who know it well. Out of everything I have seen in Utah this year, the West Valley Arts production of In the Heights is the most memorable.