🎭 Visiting The Barrio In a Different State of Mind | “In the Heights” @ LAPC Theatre

In The Heights (LA Pierce College Theatre)Why does one go to see different productions the same show?* After all, the story itself usually doesn’t change (although, often, changes do occur between the Broadway production and the Touring production, and then sometimes between the Touring production and the subsequent licensing). But the performances do change. The audiences change. The venues change. The times and context change. This results in the production having a different feel and a different reception.
(*: I’m still not sure why people go see the same production multiple times, although it does allow you to focus your attention on different actions on stage, such as the ensemble, or miss portions of the story you miss. That is, unless you are a fan-critter and obsessed with the show. Same thing with movies… and they are the same everytime, unlike shows. But I digress…)

Last night, I saw In The Heights, with music, lyrics, and conception by Lin-Manuel Miranda (FB) and book by Quiara Allegría Hudes (FB), for the third time. I had previously seen the original tour (with Lin-Manuel himself) at the Pantages, and the regional premiere of the show at Cabrillo/5-Star in Thousand Oaks. So why this show, now?

First and foremost, an actress in the cast, who I had seen back in 2015 in Jesus Christ Superstar at REP East in Santa Clarita (ז״ל), let me know she was in the show. Those who knew REP East as audience or performers have a special bond, so that was part of it. But I also wanted to see how In The Heights fared in a smaller venue: the Pantages is huge, and the Kavli is huge, and the LAPC Theatre is … less so, but not at the intimate theatre level. Lastly, I like In The Heights and the music, so I didn’t mind seeing it again (unlike, say, Book of Mormon, where once was enough).

This time I was going into the show with a very different context as well. I first saw it in 2010, when Obama was President and things were good and positive. Donald Trump was just a wealthy developer in New York. The second time I saw it was in 2014 — again, with Obama. But now? I’ve had my awareness raised on the issue of gentrification in places such as Boyle Heights and Watts, where long time populations of minorities are being pushed out by white folks looking to change neighborhood character and color. I had just finished reading a chapter in “Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles” on the Dodgers move to Chavez Ravine, and the impact on the hispanic community that lived there. Lastly, I was seeing it in the context of the era of Donald Trump, where there is hatred and distrust of hispanics from the highest offices in our nation. In The Heights is the story of immigrants whose status is not always clear. Their situation would be much more precarious today.

If you are unfamiliar with In The Heights, here’s what I wrote before: In The Heights is primarily the story of Usnavi, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who runs a bodega in Washington Heights, a barrio in New York. Usnavi is not the only character: it is the story of Usnavi’s assistant; the story of the Rosario family who run a taxi service, and whose daughter, Nina, has just dropped out of Stanford; and the story the salon next to the bodega: the owner Daniela, her friend Vanessa. It is also the story of Abuela Claudia, who immigrated from Cuba and has served as grandmother to Usnavi. When Abuela wins $96,000 in the lottery, we see how the money affects the life of this community. The website for the show describes this generally as follows: In the Heights tells the universal story of a vibrant community in Manhattan’s Washington Heights – a place where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open, and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music. It’s a community on the brink of change, full of hopes, dreams and pressures, where the biggest struggles can be deciding which traditions you take with you, and which ones you leave behind. If you read the full synopsis, you’ll see this is a complicated interwoven story.

One of the key themes of In The Heights is change to the community (in some ways similar to Fiddler on the Roof, which we saw the previous weekend, and to which the director alluded to in her notes). In this case, people are moving out of the community for financial reasons: Daniela is selling her shop and moving to Brooklyn; the Rosarios are selling their car service, and Usnavi wants to sell the bodega and go back to the DR. Where does this leave a community, its character, and its history and culture when the touchstones of the community leave? If one viewed Fiddler as the first stage where people were forced out of the “old country” due to circumstances and moved to America, In The Heights is that second stage: the immigrant community in America in its first location, on the verge of breaking up and moving out to the next phase. How does that change the community? How did the moving of the Jews to the suburbs change the character of Boyle Heights? The questions raised in that context are relevant ones, and worthy of consideration.

So I think the argument of seeing this show, at this time, has been made. In that context, how did this production fare?

I think it fared reasonably well. There were problems, but they were primarily technical (and in one case, casting, but not performance, related). So let’s get the problems out of the way first.

This production was plagued by the same issue that hurt the original tour at the Pantages: Sound. Usnavi must be heard, and heard clearly. His hip-hop patter comes fast and tells the bulk of the story, but it has to be heard to be seen. Usnavi’s amplification in this production was muffled and muted, and it made it very difficult to hear the actor clearly. Given that other actors were heard clearly, this was clearly a sound application problem for this actor in particular. There were also lighting problems: not in the overall lighting plot, but in the follow-spot, which was often late, mis-aimed, or too small — leaving the actors in darkness. This is a technical issue that should have been worked out in rehearsal, and proved to be distracting.

The last problem area was casting, and specifically the casting of Benny. One of the key points in the plot is the resistance of Nina’s parents to her relationship with Benny. In the original casting, the reason is clear: Benny is black; Nina is Hispanic (Cuban-descent). The second level of racism highlights the issues and how the two minority communities have had difficulty working together. In this production, Benny appeared to be of similar ethnicity to the bulk of the cast, making the resistance to Benny from the Rosario parents to be seemingly more economic — and making some of the lines less effective. The performance of the actor playing Benny was strong — no problems there; rather, it was just that the color-blind casting impacted the story in a perhaps unexpected way.

Other than that, performances of the cast, under the direction of Shaheen Vaaz (FB) and the choreography of Brian Moe (FB), was strong. Vaaz helped the student members of the cast create believable characters and inhabit them; Moe’s dances were energetic and fun to watch, and executed with presence and fun. I’ll note that some roles in the production were dual cast, although the program does not make clear which actors are at which performance. So as the person we know was the 2nd listed actor for her role, I’m assuming all the 2nd listed actors were at our performance.

In the lead position at our performance was Sonny Lira (FB) at Usnavi, alternating with Alex Balderas (FB). Lira did a good job with the hip-hop dialogue and capturing the personality of Usnavi. He was plagued with a muffled sound system that made his words difficult to hear even in the 2nd row; to the extent that it was an enunciation problem, he can work on that for future performances (after all, this is a student production, and everyone can improve). But modulo that, I think he did a good job with the role and was fun to watch. He did have the look of a younger Lin-Manuel, which is a good thing.

Usnavi was assisted at the bodega by his cousin, Sonny (Nicolas Escalante (FB)). Escalante was strong in his performance, interacting well with both Usnavi and one of the dancers, “Graffiti”.

In the store front next to Usnavi’s bodega was the beauty salon, run by Daniela (Claudia Rosario Olvera (FB)), with Vanessa (Tara Cox (FB) at our performance, alternating with April Lam (FB)) and Carla (Asia Herbison (FB) at our performance, alternating with Bottara Khan Nabaie (FB)). Olvera was strong in performance, singing, and dance, especially in the “Carnival del Barrio” number, although she was plagued with sound problems in “No Me Diga” that made her hard to hear. Cox, who we saw previously at REP, continued to be strong here as Vanessa with strong singing and dance, especially in “It Won’t Be Long Now” and the “Champagne” number. Herbison’s Carla was also fun to watch, especially in the 2nd act in the Carnaval number.

The other center of the story was the Rosario family: Julianne Sillona (⭐FB, FB) (at our performance, alternating with Amy G. Solano (FB)) as Nina, Jeremy Lee (FB) as her father Kevin, and Kristina Jhing Sillona (⭐FB, FB) (at our performance, alternating with Brenda Garcia (⭐FB, FB)) as her mother, Camila. Both Julianne and Kristina Jhing Sillona were strong singers; that’s not a surprise, once you look up their backgrounds. Julianne did a remarkable job as Nina in in all her numbers; and Kristina Jhing was strong in “Siempre” and “Enough”. They also were very strong on the performance since. Lee was great as her father and was a strong singer.

Jarod Aro Caitlin (⭐FB, FB) (at our performance, alternating with Trevor Alkazian (FB)), modulo the story-based casting item mentioned above, was very good as Benny, the assistance to the Rosarios who was in love with Nina. The two believably established a relationship; he sung and moved well.

At the heart of the show was Christine Avila (FB) as Abuela Claudia.  She handled the role with ease and confidence, and brought a strong center to the story — and a wonderful voice to “Paciencia Y Fe”.

Lastly, there are the smaller character roles and the ensemble. Vincent Macias (FB) was wonderful as the Piragua Guy, with a lovely voice. Janel “JJ” Javier (FB) had some extremely strong dance moves as “Graffiti”, a role that is much more dance than anything else. The ensemble was mostly focused on dance, and dance they did. They were fun to watch, and seemed to be enjoying being their characters as opposed to visibly thinking about the dance itself. The ensemble consisted of: Dominique Alburo (FB), Destiny Cable (FB), Melanie Garcia (FB), Javier Lopez (FB), Nicholas La Salle (FB), Eddie Rios (FB), Eric Rodriguez (FB), Patricia Ruiz (FB), Joyanne Tracy (FB) and Jacob Villapano (FB). I’ll note this is the first time I haven’t been able to find any FB pages or web references for actors/dancers in the ensemble. Any. They were great dancers, but obviously need to promote themselves better.

Music was provided by the Pierce College Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Wendy Mazon (FB). The orchestra consisted of Lance Merrill (FB) Keyboard 1; Ryan Espinosa (FBKeyboard 2; Maudi Cameron (FB) Piccolo, Flute; Ross Jacocks (FBSoprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bari Sax; Josh Gomez-Santizo (FB) Trumpet 1; Lindsay Gonor (FB) Trumpet 2, Clarinet; Karl Anguiano (FB) Trombone; Nathan Gonzalez (FB) Electric Guitar; Marco Bohler (FBElectric Bass; Anna Goldenberg (FBPercussion; and Matt Forsyth (⭐FB, FB) Drumset.

Finally, turning to the production and creative aspects. The scenic design was by Gene Putnam (FB), and was similar to the design I’ve seen in other productions: a car service counter and stoop for Abuela’s apartmnet to stage right, and the bodega and beauty shop on stage left, with an upstairs for both. This was effective and worked well. There was a projection to the back, presumably of the George Washington Bridge. Eileen Gizienski (FB)’s costume design worked well and seemed reasonably period appropriate. I’ve mentioned the problems with the sound before; I don’t know how much of that was due to DJ Medina (FB)’s sound design, and how much was just poor microphone placement. Other aspects of sound worked reasonably well, although the balance between performers and the orchestra was a bit off. The basic lighting design of Michael Gend (FB) worked well; the main problem was with the follow spot operators and keeping the follow spots on the performers. Other production credits: Michelle Sanchez (FB) Stage Manager; Michael Gend (FBTechnical Director; Bryan Rojas (FBAsst. Director; Tomas Ciriaco (FBAsst. Stage Manager; Arcelia Gomez (FB) Costume Maker.

In The Heights continues at the LA Pierce College Theatre through May 5, 2019. Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets.


Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Next weekend is interesting, as my wife is having a small procedure during the week. Looking to May, the month starts out with Be More Chill at Cesar Chavez Learning Academies/ARTES Magnet on Friday (rights to the show were obtained before it went to Broadway), and  Sister Act at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights on Saturday (because we love the work of this theatre, and we want to see how a small theatre tackles this big show). The second weekend of May brings  Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Universe (101) at The Main (FB) in Santa Clarita (we loved it at HFF18), as well as The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB).  May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. Who know what the weekend will bring!

June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). I’m just starting to wade through the list of 343 shows, but I already see some I want to see, including The Seven Year Itch[title of show], and the return of Tabletop: The Musical. Right now, I’ve got about 30 shows in the schedule, so I expect to pair things down as I see ticket prices and the schedule shapes up. If you are producing or in a show and you want me to see it, now is the time to get me your information — especially any discount codes. I hope to post a preliminary schedule in the next week or so.

As for July, it is already starting to fill, with Miss Saigon at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and West Side Story at 5 Star Theatricals (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.