By Mary Boyle
By now, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a household name, which is an unprecedented happening for someone who writes Broadway musicals. His 2016 Broadway hit, Hamilton, garnered 16 Tony nominations and achieved 11 wins, along with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a Grammy for the Best Musical Theater Album, and more. More recently, he contributed music for film blockbusters Moana and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, bolstering his fame even further. But, before all of that, there was his first musical: a tribute to Washington Heights, a largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood in the upper end of Manhattan near where Miranda grew up, and an unabashed ode to America's melting pot. After taking Broadway by storm in 2008, Miranda's first musical earned an impressive 13 Tony nominations and 4 wins, as well as being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, bringing Miranda into the limelight and paving the way for his success to come. Now, In the Heights will take The Rep's stage by storm, and it's the perfect way to celebrate their 65th Anniversary Season.
In the Heights is the story of of Usnavi de la Vega (Ryan Alvarado), the role Miranda originally played. Like Miranda, Usnavi was the child of immigrants, though Usnavi's came from the Dominican Republic to New York, while Miranda's came from Puerto Rico. After his parents passed away, Usnavi was left with their bodega and Abuela Claudia (Yassmin Alers) to care for. Usnavi's younger cousin, Sonny (Nicolas Garza), helps with the bodega in the summer, and is doing his best to set Usnavi up with Vanessa (Stephanie Gomerez), the girl Usnavi has is eye on, but is too shy to ask out. Gossip goes around the neighborhood as fast as Usnavi's coffee, and the community is abuzz with the news that Nina Rosario (Sophia Macias) is home for the summer after her first year at Stanford. Nina's parents, Camila (Karmine Alers) and Kevin (Tony Chiroldes), own the local cab service, and their daughter is the first from the neighborhood to go to college, but Nina comes home with bad news: she couldn't keep her grades up while having to work two jobs to pay for what her scholarship didn't cover, and she lost her scholarship. In their community, success has always meant getting out of the Heights, but as Nina finds love with Benny (David Kaverman), an employee at her parent's shop, and Usnavi finds love with Vanessa, they begin to realize there's no place like home.
Directed by Associate Artistic Director, May Adrales, The Rep pulled out all the stops for this production. Nearly everyone in the cast has been in the production before; in fact, Tony Chiroldes (Kevin Rosario) was an original Broadway cast member and Ryan Alvarado (Usnavi) was a cast member in the National Tour of Hamilton, as well as being in three different productions of In the Heights (furthermore, he is a ringer for Miranda). Yassmin Alers, another In the Heights alumni, is stunning as Abuela Claudia while — fun fact — her sister, Karmine Alers, plays Camila Rosario. The vocal stand-outs of the show, interestingly, are the three who don't have the production on their resume: Stephanie Gomerez (Vanessa), David Kaverman (Benny), and Sophia Macias (Nina), but they are Broadway-quality singers, nonetheless. The scene-stealers of the show are Lillian Castillo and Alyssa V. Gomez, who play Daniela and Carla from the local salon, and Henry Gainza as the "Piragua Guy" (I promise it will be his song that will be stuck in your head when the show ends). The live band, directed by Dan Kazemi, is simply phenomenal, which is essential to this production, as the music is as much a part of Washington Heights as the people are.
Although the neighborhood in the play is in the Heights, it mirrors the immigrant experience all over our country, including in Milwaukee. Beginning in the 1920's, the tanneries around what is now known as the Walker's Point neighborhood actively recruited workers from Mexico, which formed the beginning of Wisconsin's largest Spanish-speaking community. As the community thrived, immigrants from Puerto Rico and Cuba also settled, creating a rich cultural identity united by their shared language and experience. As in Washington Heights, Walkers Point is struggling with gentrification; as property values and the cost of living in the neighborhood increase, many people who had called the neighborhood home are forced out, changing the cultural and economic fabric of the community.
Beyond being a song-writing genius, a large part of Lin-Manuel Miranda's success is representing America's minorities on Broadway, and bringing the stories that are so much a part of the story of our Country into the dialogue, at last, in an incredibly powerful way. Being the child of very successful immigrants, Miranda grew up with one foot in the world of what is normally considered white privilege and one in the immigrant experience, which is what gives him the unique ability to bridge the gap between the two worlds. The Rep's mission is to 'ignite positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee’s rich diversity;' bringing In the Heights to Milwaukee audiences unquestionably fulfills that mission. A profoundly emotional roller-coaster ride of a musical, In the Heights will give you all the feels.
In the Heights runs through October 28th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, located within the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex at 108 E. Wells St. in Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased by calling (414) 224-9490, in-person at the Box Office, or online at www.MilwaukeeRep.com.
About Milwaukee Repertory Theater
The Milwaukee Rep is the largest performing arts organization in Wisconsin, in terms of audiences served, and one of the largest professional theaters in the country. Each year, The Rep welcomes up to 275,000 people at nearly 700 performances of 15 productions, ranging from compelling dramas, powerful classics, new plays, and full-scale musicals in its three unique performance venues: the Quadracci Powerhouse, Stiemke Studio, and Stackner Cabaret. Now in its 65th Season, The Rep has gained a national reputation as an incubator of new work, an agent of community change, and a forward-thinking provider of .vital arts education programs. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mark Clements and Executive Director Chad Bauman, Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee's rich diversity.