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Theater review: Pioneer Theatre Company’s “In The Heights”

by on September 18, 2012

Now THIS is the kind of musical theater I can get into.

In The Heights, the season opener for the Pioneer Theatre Company, is a thoroughly modern musical, infusing its story about the struggles of a scuffling Domican-dominated community in New York City with spirited songs and complex choreography that illustrate well the neighborhood’s vitality and passionate residents. Hip-hop, rock and songs full of Latin rhythms that made me want to move in my seat fill the show, and rare is the occasion when I believe characters breaking out into song improves a night at the theater–but this is one of those occasions.

In The Heights is relatively complex in both its story and delivery. Virtually everyone the audience meets from the neighborhood coming to life on the Pioneer stage has a story to tell. There are Kevin (John Herrera) and Camila (Natalie Toro), immigrant parents and small business owners trying to come up with the money to keep their daughter and neighborhood shining star Nina (Emily Vasquez) in Stanford. There’s Benny (Joshua Boone), who works for Nina’s parents while he pursues both her and his own career. Usnavi (Joseph Morales) owns the neighborhood bodega, where his ambitious younger cousin Sonny (Anthony Ramos Martinez) works with him as Usnavi chases local salon worker Vanessa (Manoly Farrell) and tends to Abuela (Debra Cardona), who essentially raised him.

L-R: Manoly Farrell (Vanessa), Natalie Hill (Daniela), Emily Vasquez (Nina) and Ariana Escalante (Carla). Photo by Alexander Weisman

You might think keeping track of the various stories would be difficult, but the action flows easily from scene to scene, with different characters matching up for songs and dances that propel the plot forward. The opening stage-filling performance of  “In The Heights” manages to introduce the neighborhood and its denizens in efficient, highly entertaining fashion, while “No Mi Dega” evokes the gossip-filled salon, and “When You’re Home” establishes the lifelong relationship of Nina and Benny.

The events on stage take place on a scorching July 4th eve through July 5, and the remarkable set allows you to get lost in Washington Heights, the north Manhattan neighborhood that gave the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the name. Fire escapes, storefronts and weathered old buildings fill the stage, with different parts–Nina’s parents’ car-service shop, Vanessa’s salon, Usnavi’s bodega, opening up to reveal the action inside.

The live orchestra does a remarkable job handling the different musical styles that switch on a dime throughout In The Heights, and the performers on stage are just as deft. Morales proves a fine rapper, and Farrell and Vasquez both tackle both high-energy dance numbers and powerful ballads more than capably.

All together, the performers and production values equal more than a worthy season opener for new Pioneer artistic director Karen Azenberg. If all the shows under her watch are as successful, Salt Lake City is in store for great things ahead at the theater on the University of Utah campus.

L-R: Joshua Boone (Benny), Emily Vaquez (Nina), Natalie Toro (Camila) and John Herrera (Kevin). Photo by Alexander Weisman.

In The Heights runs through Sept. 29 at Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, Mondays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with a matinee Saturdays at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $38 to $59, available at the Pioneer Web site.

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