Cast of "In the Heights." Credit: Michael Brosilow
Here are five adjectives to describe “In the Heights,” on stage now at Seattle Repertory Theatre:
Electric. Exuberant. Mesmerizing. Transporting. Best-ever-antidote-to-Seattle-drear.
And one verb: Go.
Actually, before you read any more, you need to buy your tickets for Lin-Manual Miranda’s first musical, playing now through Dec. 30. They're selling super-fast. (Deciding whether to take a kid? Skip to the end.) If you nabbed some remaining tickets, let me assure you that you made the right decision.
Set in the shadow of the George Washington bridge, “In the Heights” takes place in the bodegas and hair salons, streets and fire escapes of Washington Heights, the traditionally Latino neighborhood of upper Manhattan. It tells the story — in stunning rap sequences, spectacular dancing sets, moving ballads, sharply teasing humor — of a community’s dreams and stories, loves and regrets, and collective search for home.
As in any good musical, by the end of the long opening number (titled “In the Heights”), you know a bit about the main characters and what each one longs for. Bodega owner Usnavi (Ryan Alvarado) starts the scene by chasing off a graffiti artist and welcoming his regular customers through a series of freestyle raps and Latin beats. Usnavi longs to return to his homeland of the Dominican Republic, where he left when he was a baby, and to date hair stylist Vanessa (Stephanie Gómerez).
Vanessa, in turn, longs to move downtown and leave the barrio in the dust. Nina (Sopha Macías), of long dark hair and soaring vocals, has just returned from her freshman year at Stanford. She’s the pride of the neighborhood and of her parents, who worked themselves to the bone at their taxi service to fund her ambitions. But Nina also has a shameful secret.
Benny (David Kaverman), who works for Nina’s parents, dreams of running the car dispatch, learning Spanish and winning Nina’s heart.
And Abuela Claudia (Yassmin Alers), the adopted grandmother of, well, everyone (“she’s not really my abuela/she practically raised me, this corner is her escuela,” raps Usnavi), has another secret — which could launch or explode the dreams of everyone in the Heights.
During a steaming three days in July, the stories of the characters intersect and intertwine over and around the show's mesmerizing score.
The backstory of “In the Heights” is as interesting as the musical itself. Miranda wrote it as a college student at Wesleyan, basing the story and songs on his own experience growing up in the Heights. He hoped to paint a fresh picture of Latin culture and community (reportedly, early reviewers asked why there were no guns and drugs — à la “West Side Story” — in the musical).
He first staged it in a nascent version at Wesleyan, continued to work on it with fellow alums Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the book) and Tommy Kail (who directed it), making several key plot changes. After a successful off-Broadway run, the musical earned its 2008 opening on Broadway, where he starred in it. That same year it won four Tony Awards and a Grammy for best musical soundtrack.
Exuberance, humor and joy
The beauty of “In the Heights” is that despite rich moments of struggle, sadness and even a bit of danger, it always returns you to epic levels of exuberance, humor and joy. Laugh-out-loud moments abound. In one of my favorite songs, “No Me Diga,” hair salon owner Daniela (played to badass perfection by Lillian Castillo) leads her two stylist friends in a call-and-response about the local gossip that is also a tribute to the salvation that is women’s friendship.
The dance sequences practically light a fire onstage: Act One ends with “The Club," a “salsa-off" between several of the characters who outdo each other with their clockwork-like fancy legwork, turns and spins. It's a perfect lead-in to a high-drama blackout, where the characters sing of being “powerless."
And through it all, Miranda has woven his signature freestyle rap rhythms, wild wordplay and interlocking rhymes that “Hamilton" fans will recognize.
I saw “Hamilton" earlier this year during its Seattle run (lucky me); I knew the lyrics so well and had been so looking forward to it that by the time I saw it at the Paramount, I had the strange experience of almost not being able to experience it fully. Also, we had nosebleed-section seats.
“In the Heights,” in contrast, is being staged in a smaller theater (Bagley Wright’s 842 seats compared to the Paramount’s 2,000). The intimacy of the space suits the subject matter perfectly: We could see the sweat on the dancers, the steam in the air, and almost feel the stage vibrate. (If you can swing it, get tickets up front.)
Bring the kids?
So, should you bring your “Hamilton"-obsessed child to “In the Heights”? If your kid is well into their teens and/or super into musicals, or super into Lin-Manuel Miranda, then they will probably love “In the Heights.” On the other hand, if you have a child who’s younger and only mildly into musicals, then bring a partner or friend instead, someone who will be able to fully appreciate the different levels of the experience.
As for content advisories, Seattle Repertory Theatre recommends the musical for seventh grade and up. While there are no sex scenes, the existence of sex is acknowledged several times (most notably by salon owner Daniela, who yells loudly that “Usnavi had sex with Yolanda!!" during “No Me Diga"). Sexual tension is almost a character in the musical. Several long kisses happen and romance is referenced often.
Light- or sound-sensitive audience members might want to know that during the scene where the blackout occurs, there are a number of strobe light flashes and loud noises.
If you go...
When: “In the Heights” plays Tuesday–Sunday through Dec. 30.
Where: Seattle Repertory Theatre's Bagley Wright Theatre at Seattle Center, 155 Mercer St., Seattle
Tickets: $16–$135. They’re selling fast! Buy online.
Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission