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Arts and Entertainment

Taking Dreams to the Heights in L.A. Premiere of Broadway Favorite

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Creator/Lead Lin-Manuel Miranda as Usnavi in In the Heights | Photo by Joan Marcus

Creator/Lead Lin-Manuel Miranda as Usnavi in In the Heights | Photo by Joan Marcus
By Stephanie Taylor, Special to LAistA sassy amalgamation of New York street smarts and Latin soul with a little Spanglish thrown in for authenticity, In the Heights makes its Los Angeles premiere at the Pantages with a recently extended run through July 25. A Broadway favorite and winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best New Musical, In the Heights is a light-hearted examination of the hopes and dreams of a mostly Dominican Republic and Puerto Rican community in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights.

It seems everyone in this slowly gentrifying neighborhood has but one goal: to leave the barrio that they believe entraps them. Usnavi, played by lyricist and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda in all but a handful of performances, runs the corner deli/coffee shop/grocery store. Simply trying to make the numbers add up, while also trying to scramble up the courage to ask out longtime crush Vanessa (played by Sabrina Sloan through July 4), the affable Usnavi serves as the resident sage as well as a father figure to his orphaned cousin who also works in his shop.

Oblivious to Usnavi’s feelings, Vanessa is consumed by her own longing to move downtown and escape the barrio - and all its intrinsic encumbrances such as her dysfunctional, alcoholic mother. Nina (Arielle Jacobs) is the stereotypical smart girl, the one who appeared destined to make it, until she reveals she lost her scholarship to Stanford because she couldn’t work and study at the same time. Battling familial and personal expectations and falling for her father’s employee, Benny (as played by Rogelio Douglas Jr.), Nina represents the inevitable disappointment that comes when everything you ever wanted was within arm’s reach, yet still slips away. And you’re not so sure you can get it back.

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Observing all of this kindly is Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora), the neighborhood elder who served as a de facto parent for Usnavi when he lost his own parents. But when a lottery ticket sold from Usnavi’s store turns out to be worth $96,000, hope and fantasy transcends as all wonder who is holding the lucky number.

With a feel-good score combining elements of rap, multiple Latin genres and typical Broadway verve, In the Heights is a fun, musical romp through the assimilated immigrant world, true to its ethnic/cultural roots while embracing broader American ideals. Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler blends samba and break-dancing for a powerful physical representation of the eclectic influences on this community.

In the Heights is not a dark and serious exploration of matters of survival, and despite the seemingly large problems its characters face, they are always handled with soul and humor. Though at times the show might seem overly simple, and when it does try to dive “deeper” it dips into the cliche, but there’s enough honesty to be found to sustain the narrative.

During the night of the review, at times the songs appeared muddled and the fiery rap tempos made it difficult to distinguish the lyrics. But Sloan’s vocals carried a haunting sadness, replete with the continued disappointments Vanessa faced, while Jacobs’ powerful solos foreshadowed that Nina would find her way.

While many a Broadway show is about a dreamer looking for some actualization of his or her hopes, In the Heights engages at a baser level, a truer level, and we the audience know its characters have the pluck to make things happen. Although a lottery ticket could be a tired plot trick enabling an unlikely and easy escape from financial woes, a mere 96K (and even the song warns of what's left after taxes) is hardly enough on which to retire. It's not a requiem from the struggle to survive, just enough to enable the recipient to make his own dreams -- the ones he has already been fighting for -- come true. It's a booster shot, not an inoculation, against life’s toils.

When stacked side-by-side for a comparison, New York and Los Angeles are usually found to be more different than similar. Yet the realities set forth in this community are true to any immigrant population, and Washington Heights could easily be parts of Silver Lake or Los Feliz. The characters embody the old-fashioned American dream, with grim determination to make a better life for future generations while also maintaining a daring optimism for their own. It's also an important reminder of a reality on which newer immigrant populations seem to have a tighter grip than others -- your world is your community and at times it's all you have. Through the support and sacrifice of that community, somehow everything will turn out OK. It’s a peppy and upbeat message, but through a little creativity and excellent production standards manages to refrain from being saccharine.

Through July 25. Tuesday - Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, and Sunday at 1pm & 6:30pm. Tickets from $25 - $85. The Pantages Theatre is located in Hollywood at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard at Vine Street.