Aurora Theater’s In the Heights did not necessarily reach the potential it could have, but a unique combination of lighting, special effects and dance let the musical shine and evoke a sense of surrealism to the audience.
After a successful year for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, it is wise of Theatrical Outfit and Aurora Theatre to work on a joint production of Miranda’s earlier musical, In the Heights. This production, starring Emory University alumnus Garrett Turner as Benny, is running from Sept. 8 to 18 at the Rialto Center for the Arts in downtown Atlanta.
Miranda composed the plot, music and lyrics based on Quiara Alegria Hudes’ book. In the Heights took Broadway in 2008, winning numerous Tony Awards for best musical, score, choreography and orchestration. This Atlanta production of Heights brings a fresh and relevant show to the Atlanta theater community.
Documenting the relationships amongst a largely Hispanic community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, In the Heights tells the narrative of Usnavi (Diego Lock-Perez), a young bodega owner who dreams of moving back to his home country, the Dominican Republic. When Nina comes home from Stanford University having lost her scholarship and dropped out, Nina’s family struggles to find a way to get her back to school while Benny, who works for Nina’s father’s driving company, pursues a relationship with her, much to her father’s dismay. When Abuela Claudia (Felicia Hernandez) wins a lottery ticket and Usnavi finally musters up the courage to take Vanessa (Julissa Sabino) out on a date, Usnavi’s future prospects begin to change. Through the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life, the community unites and rediscovers the meaning of home over the hardships, obstacles and unexpected celebrations that present themselves.
In the Heights gives life to each character and, in return, puts life on the stage — it is vibrantly full of culture and still vulnerable. As if the original Broadway soundtrack had been listened to one too many times, Klock-Perez brought more of Lin-Manuel’s portrayal of the character to the stage than his own. Even with a similar capture of Usnavi, one crucial aspect of the character was missing — the vulnerability that allows Usnavi to be discombobulated yet humbling to watch was masked by Klock-Perez’s overly confident facade that mistook Usnavi’s smooth behavior for a lack of sincerity.
Sabino demanded the stage from the start with her dominating voice and sharp dance skills. One might not expect such impressive belting to come out of Hernandez, who plays a petite older woman, yet her voice was of not only reason but also resonance.
It is certainly encouraging that the dances in Heights were not lacking in volume; however, the dances did lack the energy and wow-factor that Heights demands with its eccentric salsa, merengue and hip-hop score. Individually, the ensemble struck the choreography and style on the dot, but there were moments when lifts and flashy moves lacked the striking appeal they needed, and thus the dance numbers relied on lighting and music to provide the necessary grandiosity. Even then, one could not help but notice the uneventful dancing.
The production was at its strongest when each element, from dance to lighting to sound, held its own ground so that, in combination, the numbers turned into the spectacles that they were meant to be, such as in the number “Fireworks,” which lit up the stage in what felt like a Fourth of July celebration.
In an attempt to distinguish the many songs that could have easily blended together from one upbeat merengue to another, various lighting effects were used. However, at times the gobos and patterned light displays cast over the actors created an amateur high school effect. There were moments when lighting was subpar and others when it was beyond exceptional. For example, when the stage was lit brightly with orange and yellow and the actors’ shadows were cast across the sides of the proscenium, the effect was contagious; it was as if one could feel the heat coming off the Manhattan sidewalks on a hot summer day.
Theatrical Outfit and Aurora Theatre did inspire a few unique, crowd-pleasing moments. Because free food is irresistible, the endearing move of the shaved ice vendor in the show handing a snowcone to an audience member served both her and the production well. Simultaneously, there were a few poor choices made in efforts to make the production feel inviting. Bringing dancers through the sides of the orchestra did little to spill the show out into the audience and instead distracted everyone from what was happening on stage.
At times, the script relied heavily on body movement to tell the story. At the end of “Fireworks,” when Nina forgives Benny for their feud and comes forth to take his hand, there was a disconnect in the storytelling, leaving the audience to have to jump a bit to understand the plot. The moment Usnavi saw the painting of his Abuela Claudia and realized that Washington Heights was his home felt rushed and unimportant. This scene is crucial to the theme of finding one’s home, happened so rapidly that it was difficult to catch Usnavi’s change in mindset.
Not only is Heights a smart show to put up because of Miranda’s mark on it, but it is also extremely relevant in today’s society. This production is to be highly recommended for any theater-goer who has not yet had the pleasure of seeing Heights. Celebrating America’s cultural diversity and sending a message about immigration through a superb and thrilling score, Theatrical Outfit and the Aurora Theatre’s production of In the Heights, although tamed, still managed to engage the audience.