“In the Heights” a must see at Milwaukee Repertory Theater

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Photo by Michael Brosilow

In the Heights will run at The Milwaukee Reportory Theater until Oct. 28.

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of “In the Heights” opened Sept. 18 and runs until Oct. 28.

The show, written by and originally starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, won four Tony Awards in 2008, one of which being Best Musical. Blending together a mixture of musical genres including rap and hip-hop, traditional Broadway-style ballads and Latin rhythms, and sharing the stories of everyday life for immigrant families and a modern inner-city community, “In the Heights” was a barrier-breaking musical, and brought the Latino community to the forefront of the Broadway stage.

Miranda’s immense success in writing and starring in his second musical “Hamilton” made him a household name, even among those unfamiliar with the Broadway world. But “In the Heights” was the debut of Miranda’s passionate talents of creating and performing. Miranda will be producing the Warner Bros. film adaption of “In the Heights,” set to come out in the summer of 2020.

“In the Heights” follows the lives of community members in a Washington Heights barrio during the heat of July. Usnavi (Ryan Alvarado) owns the neighborhood bodega where he works with his teenage cousin Sonny (Nicolas Garza). Abuela Claudia (Yassmin Alers) raised Usnavi and Sonny, but serves as a matriarch for the entire neighborhood, which includes the Rosarios (Tony Chiroldes and Karmine Alers) and their daughter Nina (Sophia Macías), who has just returned home from her first-year of college with some difficult news, Benny (David Kaverman), who works for Rosario’s car service and is in love with Nina, Vanessa (Stephanie Gomérez), an independent young woman seeking to find a way out of the barrio, and the object of Usnavi’s affection, and Daniela (Lillian Castillo) and Carla (Alyssa V. Gomez), salon workers with a habit for neighborhood gossip.

Alvarado, who recently performed in the first Broadway National Tour of “Hamilton” as the Alexander Hamilton alternate as well as the Aaron Burr and King George III understudy, gave a phenomenal performance as the lovable protagonist Usnavi. Hardworking and having a strong sense of loyalty to his community, a sense of humor and slightly dorky mannerisms, Usnavi as a character is next to impossible to not like. Alvarado’s performance exemplified Usnavi’s versatility and complexities.

For me, Macías particularly stole the show as Nina. During her solo ballad “Breathe,” Nina tries to come to terms with anxieties toward returning to her home and disappointing the community rooting for her. The emotion in Macías’s stunning, clear voice gave me chills. Macías very believably portrayed an overwhelmed first-generation college student returning to her home across the country after a culturally-shocking first year.

I was very familiar with “In the Heights” before seeing this production, but Macías’s demonstration of anxiety and uncertainty from built-up school pressures and feeling caught between two worlds was something that I unexpectedly related to. I can only imagine the familiarity Macías’s performance brings to those students undergoing similar emotions as first-generation college students.

Macías’ and Kaverman’s voices blended beautifully in their duets, and the pair provided very believable on-stage chemistry as childhood friends-turned-lovers Nina and Benny.

Real-life sisters Yassmin and Karmine Alers performed alongside each other as the two strong matriarchs Abuela Claudia and Camila Rosario. The sisters, who have both previously performed on Broadway in “On Your Feet,” each delivered powerful performances.

Abuela Claudia, while not biologically related to any of the characters, serves as a grandmother for the entire neighborhood, bringing them close together. Yassmin simultaneously portrayed a believably fragile elderly woman and a powerful storyteller with an impressive belt. The heart-wrenching “Paciencia y Fe” outlines Abuela Claudia’s struggles immigrating from Cuba as a child and struggling with building a life in New York. Yassmin’s commanding vocals were paired with dynamic choreography by an ensemble representing the movements and scenes of Abuela Claudia’s memories.

Likewise, Karmine’s portrayal of Camila Rosario believably established herself as mother and wife, and as a mediator between equally hard-headed father Kevin and daughter Nina. In “Enough,” Camila firmly puts her foot down to stop the familial rift provoked by Nina’s leave of absence from school. Karmine’s resolve brought an audible reaction of approval from the audience.

Also extremely notable was Chiroldes’ Kevin Rosario. A member of the original Broadway “In the Heights” cast, Chiroldes’ experience in the show was evident. Chiroldes displayed conflicted emotion as a father longing to do whatever it takes to provide for his family. His show-stopping solo “Inútil” evoked an impressive silence across the audience.

There was not a weak link in the cast, many of whom had previously performed in prominent shows on Broadway, national tours and theaters across the country. The Rep’s production of “In the Heights” was also riddled with impressive special effects, fast-paced choreography, transportive set and costume design and phenomenal directing and production.

The full-ensemble numbers best displayed a culmination of all aspects of the production. The Act One Finale “Blackout” exemplified a pinnacle of special effects, choreography, acting and vocals. The Latin-inspired “Carnaval del Barrio” showcased a variety of powerful solos as well as eye-catching choreography as the characters danced and waved flags from their respective Latin countries.

“In the Heights” features songs that make audience members want to dance along, jokes that cause the audience to laugh out loud and melancholy moments sure to bring tears. For immigrants caught between seeking the American Dream and reminiscing of the homes of their ancestors, for first-generation college students seeking understanding while tackling goals with high stakes, for tight-knit families and communities undergoing struggles with finances, relationships and death and for anyone dealing with the sadness, struggles and beauty of change, “In the Heights” is a must see.