In Milwaukee Rep’s In the Heights, the sky begins as a sliver of blue above the wrought iron fire escape, but by the end, it has become just as much a character as Usnavi, Vanessa, Nina, and Benny. It has filled with morning’s light, full of hope during the opening number “In the Heights” and unflinchingly revealing disappointment at the beginning of Act II; it has filled with the rosy pinks of dawn as romance blooms; it has filled with 4th of July fireworks, then an inky and total darkness as the neighborhood celebrates America’s independence even as they fight for their economic survival and hard-won, endangered rights through immigration that is marginalized and maligned; and it has filled with every color in between.
I did not see either the off-Broadway or Broadway incarnations of In the Heights. My first experience with the show was in 2016 in Chicago at a scale much like the one described by Jill Furman in the script’s introduction. But my sense is that the use of sky is influenced, in part, by In the Heights originator Lin-Manuel Miranda and his inspirational good-morning and good-night Tweets (set to be released in a collection as this production winds down). The sense of optimism, his joy and pride and activism, sculpted out of words, creates the landscape and sketches the sky and the world: it is Miranda’s morning and evening, but the cast and creative team of Milwaukee Rep color it, vibrantly and magnetically.
Robert Aguilar’s incredible lighting design and Tim Mackabee’s set design, which stretches towards the skyline while also feeling earthbound with storefronts and stoops and crosswalks, would be admirable enough, but it would only be a well-sketched landscape without the radiant talent inhabiting the characters. It’s a tall order to bring together both local and national talent and ask them to create a community that is both rich with history and accessible and universal, but the cast of performers, including the hard-working ensemble who take William Carlos Angulo’s choreography and fill the city block with kinetic life, are more than up to the task. In fact, when Stephanie Gomérez’s Vanessa faces the audience to sing “It Won’t Be Long Now,” her eyes are so electric with excitement and certainty it’s hard to tell where the magic of the lights and dance begin and her performance ends.
At the lead, Ryan Alvarado is a perfect Usnavi, confident in the rapid-fire verbosity of the music while charmingly goofy in his playful fraternal relationships with cousin Sonny (a thoroughly delightful Nicolas Garza) and best friend Benny (David Kaverman), his burgeoning romance with Gomérez’s Vanessa, and his iron-clad bond with Abuela Claudia, a neighborhood fixture who supported Usnavi after his parents passed away. Claudia is stirringly brought to full, rich life by Yassmin Alers, whose Act I solo “Paciencia y Fe” found every thread in a tapestry of a life full of struggle weaved together by faith in both a higher power and the bonds of family.
The Rosario family, Kevin (Tony Chiroldes, whose determination and weariness are worn exquisitely on his face and in his voice) and Camila (Karmine Alers, explosively, impressively alive with love and frustration in “Enough,” so much so her performance caused one audience member to yelp “Yes!” with an enthusiasm matched by the packed house), support their daughter Nina at Stanford… but she returns to the neighborhood on academic probation, hiding what she perceives is her failure to not only her own goals and dreams, but to the neighborhood and family who believed in her promise. Sophie Macias embodies Nina’s anger, self-directed in “Breathe,” and sends it soaring, then attempts to bottle it as she meets up with Usnavi, Abuela, Vanessa and her salon colleagues Daniela (Lillian Castro, a comic delight who plants her own show-stopping stake in the ground during “Carnaval Del Barrio”) and Carla (Alyssa V. Gomez, a charmingly gentle contrast to Castro’s sarcasm) and her parents. Macias’ generous approach to Nina, her understanding and willingness to show the way a smart, driven youth can falter and self-destruct under even the most loving high expectations, are equalled by her spark with long-time Rosario Car Service employee Benny. Macias and Kaverman build a convincing slow burn that explodes with the fireworks at the end of Act I, stirring together familiarity and shared history with simmering chemistry. Their duets together are electric.
Stitching his way as a literal through line is a character known as Piragua Guy, giving voice to so much more than a call to the neighborhood for a refreshing treat in the sweltering summer. As charmingly sung by Henry Gainza, the economic battle against Mr. Softee is a perfect metaphor for the community’s ongoing challenges with gentrification, and his songs are like the tinkling of bells above, below, and around Usnavi’s spoken-word edicts. It’s fitting then that the colors represented on Piragua Guy’s cart are those that appear in the fireworks, a master stroke of Milwaukee Rep’s fully realized, expertly crafted staging. It would be a shame to miss this beautifully rendered portrait of community, family, resistance, and resilience.
In the Heights runs September 18 – October 28, 2018, in the Quadracci Powerhouse. Purchase tickets at MilwaukeeRep website or by calling the Ticket Office at 414-224-9490.