In The Heights – 3 Stars

Reviewed by Claudia A. Fox Tree

There is a culture with salsa music, hip-hop dance, jazz trombone, street graffiti art, and the Spanish language that might look and sound different on the outside, but it has the same “growing pains” as many American cultures on the inside. That is, paying for college, moving out to live on your own, finding a job, and falling in love with someone your parents don’t like. If you have been to the barrio of New York, you will recognize the scenery of a subway entrance, beauty salon, and bodega. If you know Spanish, you’ll know that “barrio” means “neighborhood.” If you haven’t been there, then be prepared to learn a little about the rich culture captured by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s conception of Washington Heights, New York. As composer and lyricist, he was nostalgic about his childhood and wanted to save a part of this memory, and that of folks like Red Sox player Many Ramirez and actor Laurence Fishburne, who also called the Heights “home.” Paul Daigneault, who has directed over forty plays and musicals for SpeakEasy and been twice named Best Director by the Boston Theater Critics Association, directs In The Heights.

In The Heights is a relatively new production on the theater scene, winning four 2008 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It is a show about belonging in a family, a neighborhood, and culture. This show isn’t the story of one person or two; it is the story of many individuals who make up the neighborhood family. Every family has dysfunctions, humorously called “malfunctions” in the show, and the barrio is no exception. Among the many interesting characters who express their desires, Usanvi, played by Diego Klock-Perez, is the narrator who owns the bodega and wishes to return to the Dominican Republic, which he can’t even remember anymore. Vanessa, portrayed by Alessandra Valea, is Usnavi’s love interest and she can’t wait to move into her own apartment away from her alcoholic mother, but can’t afford it. Nina, portrayed by Santina Umbach, would have been the first to go to college, but instead, is returning as a drop out from Stanford University. Benny, played by Jared Dixon, is the hard worker who wants to open up his own business, loves Nina, and can’t speak Spanish. Abuela Claudia, performed by Carolyn Saxon, holds the history, is grandmother or mother to many, and is proud of all her “offspring.” There are main characters, but there is no central character, instead there are the themes of family and growing up, where the only foreseeable “escape” is the fire escape and most folks feel powerless.

In The Heights has wonderful music brought to life by a live band. The dancers are refreshingly “typical folks” and range in height, body types, and ethnic looks. They easily move from acting as common folks on the street to break dancing, salsa, and hip-hop numbers. One of the more impressive musical numbers, “Blackout” is performed when there is a power outage in the neighborhood. The dancers use cell phones to show their movements. Because Karen Perlow’s lighting was malfunctioning on the day we saw the show, the house lights were up, and the dance fell flat. I hope this will be resolved by the next performance!

In The Heights begs the question, if you won the lottery and were given the chance to leave your “home,” however you define it, would you? See the show to learn who won the ticket and what he or she does with it, however understand, the lottery is the least of the themes, something like in the show Cats – one cat will win the right to be reborn, but the show is really about the characters and the journey they have had.

The Speakeasy theater is larger than a black box, easy to find, and has wide entrance halls. The audience included pre-teens to older adults on the afternoon we saw the performance. It is suitable for all theater going ages. Plan to take public transportation or arrive 45 minutes early, as parking was limited, even in the nearby garage.

In The Heights will play for five weeks – from May 10- June 8 – in the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St. in Boston’s South End.

Tickets start at $25. There are discounts for students and seniors. Persons age 25 and under are $25 at all times. Student rush tickets are $14, and go on sale one hour before curtain. There is a limit of one rush ticket per valid student ID.

For tickets or more information, the public is invited to call 617-933-8600 or visit