Review: Berkeley Playhouse’s ‘In the Heights’ strives to make it to the top of the world

Usnavi (Carlos Diego Mendoza) engages his affection for Vanessa (Melissa Rivera) in the Berkeley Playhouse production of “In the Heights” at the Julia Morgan Theater, running through Oct. 16. (Ben Krantz Studio photos)

There is such a lustrous energy that comes with taking in a live version of “In the Heights.” It’s a feel-good musical with conflicts that aren’t earth shattering, and resolutions that might minimize potentially large themes all in the name of big, bright showtunes and a simplistic denouement. 

That doesn’t take away from how one may feel when the story concludes. If a litmus test of a successful musical is a score’s hummability, with fantastic numbers such as “96,000″ and “The Club,” “In the Heights,” which debuted on Broadway in 2008 and garnered four Tony awards including best musical, is hummable in spades. 

The Berkeley Playhouse production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s entry into the dawning of a new era of musical theatre, one where merengue and salsa is dished out from the hip and the hop, checks a lot of boxes. There are moments that don’t quite reach the pinnacle of necessary emotion and other times where celestial vocals need to match the intention of a character’s inner-demands more fluidly. But as an overall production, the Julia Morgan Theater serves as a superb vehicle to view the lives of beautiful brown folk in upper-Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, stewarded glowingly by director Mel Martinez with a fruitful heaping of Staci Arriaga’s choreography.

The story is a familiar one for those who have followed Miranda’s meteoric rise as a one-man corporation, a show that has had quite a renaissance since 2015, when Hamilton exploded and became its own empire. While the royalties for “Hamilton” have yet to be released (which hasn’t stopped some folks from strangely doing it anyway), an invitation to take in a very good earlier work “from the creator of ‘Hamilton'” has become a fantastic selling point for many companies.

The musical follows loyal bodega owner Usnavi (Carlos Diego Mendoza), who makes sure his cousin Sonny (Jacob Henrie-Naffaa) and neighborhood pillar Abuela Claudia (Anita Viramontes) are well taken care of. The bodega is the center of life at the top of the world, and Usnavi has his hand in everything. There is also a bevy of colorful characters, folks like Daniela (Stephanie Baumann) and Carla (Vanessa Dalpiaz) who run a sassy salon full of flair; aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Rivera), the young woman Usnavi is smitten with, who is trying to go downtown and engage in a life outside of her stifling enclave, and Nina (Cristina Hernandez), who is navigating the failure of leaving Stanford.

The Nina storyline is informed mightily by her parents Kevin (Erick Casanova) and Camila (Sheila Viramontes), who carry great influence over their daughter, a storyline that veers into some discomfitting directions in regards to her relationship with Benny (Jordan Covington), a handsome young Black man who is under Kevin’s employ at the cab company. 

Any production of this musical is all about the cavalcade of bangers the show produces, and this production brings forth some terrific versions. As Usnavi, Mendoza’s strength is carrying a nice flowing dexterity as a rapper, especially in some of the trickier moments in numbers such as “Hundreds of Stories,” a tune that varies in rhythms and styles. His work in the opening number, where we meet all of the souls who create this world, is succinct and sharp.

Other characters do plenty to keep the keen narrative spinning forward. Hernandez is beautifully voiced as Nina, nailing the heartbreaking “Respira,” our first real interaction with her arc. Her work with the engaging Covington is fantastic, as they both belt big in the stirring number “Sunrise.” Rivera’s Vanessa dives into the hurt of life, representative of so many young women of color working on a tightrope with no safety net. “It Won’t Be Long Now” is a splendid number that may function as a quixotic dream with ironic tendencies. 

As Daniela, Baumann may be the most well-rounded performer of the bunch, a big-voiced and strongly-presenced actor, leading on the number “Carnaval del Barrio” with searing skill. And Anita Viramontes is best when playing her character with a transcendent truth, drilling down on “Paciencia y Fe” with its beautifully discovered ups and downs, culminating in a huge plot reveal.

One of the slickest aspects of Miranda’s piece is how it has crafted minor roles into some of the most memorable. That is not only due to the show’s structure, but a credit to the performers that interpret those roles in this production. Tony Wooldridge’s Graffiti Pete, who kicks off the show, is a kinetic wonder that commands the eyeballs of the audience anytime he is on the stage. And the poignant metaphor of “Piragua,” representative of all those who grind out the daily hustle, is sung with gripping humanity by Jesse Cortez. Of course, all of these numbers are assisted mightily by conductor Kenji Higashihama and his tight eight-piece band, which will only get tighter harmonically with the cast as the run moves forward. 

“In the Heights” functioned as a groundbreaking piece of theatre in the later 2000s, and has become the signature musical for Latinx performers since. And for good reason – when it comes to a delightful production such as this one, a little nostalgia goes a long way. 

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Playhouse presents “In the Heights”
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
The Word: A strong production of the show that launched the juggernaut that is Lin-Manuel Miranda – a cavalcade of well-known hits makes this production a delight.
Running time: Two hours, 35 minutes with an intermission
The Julia Morgan Theatre
2640 College Ave, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $25 – $49
For tickets, call (510) 845-8542, ext. 351 or visit www.berkeleyplayhouse.org

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