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The Raleigh theatre scene continues to vindicate the sacrifices from the past two years, cranking out the productions that stalled when COVID-19 put theatre in a chokehold in March of 2020. This weekend, Raleigh Little Theatre opened the long-anticipated In the Heights, the brainchild of Lin Manuel Miranda, who became a household name after his smash Broadway hit Hamilton and film credits Moana and Encanto. Audiences will immediately recognize the signature sound of Miranda's music and lyrics, connected with dialogue by librettist Quiara Alegría Hudes.
RLT originally announced their plans to produce In the Heights in February of 2020. While postponing came with disappointment, perhaps it's a consolation prize for RLT that their "paciencia y fe" paid off. Since the time they first announced their production, Miranda has only further dominated the musical scene, on screen and on stage. In the Heights returned to prominence from its original 2008 Broadway debut with a film adaptation released to theaters and streaming in 2021. And, since 2020, theatre worldwide has been better responding to the call for diversity that reflects the true makeup of society after being dominated by White creators and performers for decades (if not centuries). For all these reasons, RLT's In the Heights is right on time.
In the Heights follows the stories of three Latinx young adults in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, New York. Usnavi runs the local bodega with younger cousin Sonny and often contemplates on what else he might become. Vanessa works at the local hair salon under ownership of Daniela and Carla but is bound and determined to move out of Washington Heights and become a fashion designer. Nina has just returned home from her first year at Stanford University, but flounders to tell her parents, Kevin and Camila, that she had to drop out after failing to maintain her grades while working multiple jobs to pay the tuition. The close-knit community is bound together by their matriarchal figure, Abuela Claudia.
In Raleigh Little Theatre's production, Nicholas Claudio and Cristina Duchesne-Rivera's stars burned brightly as Usnavi and Vanessa, respectively. Claudio carried off Miranda's musicality, both wordy rapping and balladic refrains, with equal prowess as he characterized Usnavi as sympathetic, believable, and dimensional. Duchesne-Rivera was nearly flawless as Vanessa: ambitious, determined, and free. Her powerhouse vocals conveyed all the qualities that made Vanessa shine in solo moments and supported the ensemble without overwhelming during company numbers. Ingrid Santiago and Bryce Nasir embraced the chemistry between Nina and Benny, respectively, serving the strongest connection of the production. Santiago sang a humble yet convicted Nina and Nasir was perfectly playful and steady as Benny. Tippy Thornton effectuated Abuela Claudia as the roots of the community and soared in her solo vocal number. Mairym Azcona's Daniela signaled her character may someday follow in Abuela's footsteps, taking on a matriarchal role in the community. Azcona was confident both in character and vocals as Daniela, taking on the role with ease. Alongside Roni Nicole's bold Carla, the pair found places to establish strength and attitude as well as intimacy and compassion in Daniela and Carla's duet. Equally dynamic was Ryan Vasconcellos as Sonny, the young upstart cousin to Usnavi. Vasconcellos captured Sonny's youthful confidence and effectively developed Sonny as a meaningful and necessary contributor to the community over the course of the story. Alfredo Hurtado and Carolina Kavanaugh made waves as concerned parents Kevin and Camila. Hurtado nailed the inner turmoil of a father and businessman trying to see both his family and his business thrive, and Kavanaugh delivered Camila with the confidence and ease of a seasoned performer, despite In the Heights marking her acting debut.
Supported by seasoned music director Michael Santangelo and the talented pit orchestra, the music of In the Heights soared. Sound designer Todd Houseknecht managed the challenging dynamic of live music, ensemble vocals, and multiple solo microphones without a hitch – no small feat. Although some of Miranda's challenging vocal melodies seemed occasionally difficult to land for some of the cast, these difficulties were forgiven and forgotten when the strength of the ensemble took the stage.
Director Patrick Torres' attention to diversity in casting honored the communities the cast represented, both locally and abroad. Jeremy David Clos' casual and realistic costume design conveyed a relatable community that was on full display within the first minutes of the show. Torres maximized Lydia Watt's multi-leveled set, as did choreographers James and Peiwei Cobo, often filling the stage front to back and top to bottom with simple background interaction or invigorating dance. Cailen Waddell's lighting design directed focus and mood, with a particularly stand-out scene at the end of Act I during which he designed a city-wide blackout coupled with a July 4th fireworks show.
With supportive production elements, Torres' thoughtful casting conveyed a rich tapestry of humanity for RLT's In the Heights and honors their commitment to diverse theatre experiences. When the entire company filled the stage with joyful song and dance, the beauty of its diversity was truly the most impactful element of the production. Whether you need a live-performance Lin Manuel Miranda fix or a good dose of human connection, RLT's In the Heights is the right pick.
In the Heights continues through Sunday, June 19. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.