In the Heights: Scorching numbers on a summer day
By Barbara Schuler
March 21, 2018
Spring is having trouble making an appearance on Long Island, but summer is in full swing at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater, with a spirited take on the high-octane, dance-obsessed, Tony-winning musical “In the Heights.”
This, you might recall, was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, started when he was still in college, well before “Hamilton” was even a gleam in his creative eye. Set on a scorching summer day, the play takes place in Washington Heights, where Usnavi (a fine performance from Spiro Marcos in the role Miranda originated) runs his bodega amid the turmoil of a neighborhood where no one is quite making it.
Director Paul Stancato has gathered an impressive cast, with voices that will blow you away and enough stage electricity to energize a small city. Tami Dahbura is endearing and heartbreaking as Abuela Claudia, the barrio matriarch who raised Usnavi (he’s named for the first thing his parents saw upon arriving in America, a ship that said U.S. Navy) after his parents died. Cherry Torres internalizes her pain as Nina, the girl who got out, coming home from her first year at Stanford with alarming news that sends her ferociously protective parents Kevin and Camila (Paul Aguirre and Shadia Fairuz) into quite the tailspin.
Other standouts include Chiara Trentalange as Usnavi’s feisty, don’t-mess-with-me love interest; Josh Marin as the out-of-place Benny (shades of “West Side Story” right down to the balcony scene), who has his sights on Nina; and Vincent Ortega as the piragua guy, selling shaved ice to anyone he can convince to pass up Mister Softee. Not to mention an ensemble of accomplished singers and dancers who bring Christopher Vergara’s street-kid costumes and Christopher Ash’s storefront set to life, while making it clear they know how to sell salsa (and we’re not talking the stuff you put on chips.)
But it’s Usnavi who holds it all together and Marcos plays him with a quiet, reserved charm and curtailed cockiness that wisely never attempts to channel Miranda (tough, because an unmistakable resemblance cannot be denied). Marcos is comfortable wherever the music takes him, moving effortlessly from haunting ballads like “It Won’t Be Long Now” and “Alabanza” to the hip-hop flavored “96,000.”
“I know I wrote a show about home,” Miranda said in his rapped acceptance speech when he won the 2008 Tony for best original score. And in the end, that is the loving message of “In the Heights,” no clicking of sparkly red shoes required.