A slice of Manhattan’s Washington Heights has sprouted from the stage at Actors’ Playhouse, transforming the Miracle Theatre in chic Coral Gables into a place that pulses with life, passion and sabor latino.
The Tony Award-winning In the Heights is the creation of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who grew up near the place where his career-launching musical is set, and Philadelphia-raised Quiara Alegría Hudes, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Still, watching the show with a crowd as diverse and attuned to its rhythms as the excellent cast is, it’s easy to feel that this vibrant piece of New York theater was always meant for Miami.
Set over two scorching July days and a life-altering night, the musical tells the intertwined stories of long-time neighbors, co-workers, friends and potential lovers. Usnavi (Nick Duckart), a single bodega owner, supplies everyone’s heart-starting café con leche and throws down rhymes about life in the Heights. Daniela (Elise Santora), owner of the salon next door, spends her last day before moving the business to the Bronx gossiping with stylists Carla (Alicia Taylor Tomasko) and Vanessa (Christie Prades), the restless young woman Usnavi isn’t bold enough to woo.
Car service owners Kevin (Oscar Cheda) and his strong wife Camila (Denise Sanchez) are waiting for their pride and joy, Nina (Sarah Amengual), to get back home from Stanford University. Benny (Marcus Paul James), a black driver and sometime dispatcher, is happy to see Nina too, though a budding romance is the last thing her parents want. Abuela Claudia (Doreen Montalvo), Usnavi’s jokester cousin Sonny (Rayner G. Garranchan), street artist Graffiti Pete (Jose-Luis Lopez), a roving seller of heat-quenching piraguas (Henry Gainza) and eight energetic singer-dancers keep the Heights ‘hood percolating with life, laughs and drama.
Overseeing this just-right pinnacle of Actors’ silver anniversary season are director David Arisco, who has shaped the company’s shows since its earliest days; choreographer Stephanie Klemons, whose complex movement patterns, split-second shifts and stylistic range work together organically; and musical director Manny Schvartzman, whose band of eight navigates the score’s propulsive Latin rhythms, stirring anthems and beautifully crafted ballads with equal finesse.
The cast moves around Sean McClelland’s urban set -- a hybrid of realistic shop fronts, painted cityscape and minimally suggested second stories -- with what can only be described as joy.
That feeling flows from using their considerable vocal chops on a unique blend of music and hip-hop; telling a story that speaks in deep, personal ways to theatergoers whose families have roots in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere; and delivering dazzling performances in a new version of a Broadway smash.
Each of the actors vividly inhabits his or her character. Duckart is a likeable, engaging Usnavi, shy as he’s crushing on Prades’ willowy Vanessa, stronger as he’s trading barbs with Garranchan’s irresistibly funny Sonny. Amengual, who leads the company on the lovely Breathe, has a tender language-lesson duet with James on Sunrise. Cheda’s cry of uselessness on Inútil is powerful, and Gainza’s richly delivered Piragua makes you want to rush the stage to buy a syrup-topped snow cone. Santora’s appealing Daniela pairs a quick wit with a penchant for truth-telling. Montalvo’s Abuela Claudia is the caretaker of memories, the loving elder we revere, then mourn. Lopez and his fellow dancers? Killer.
Tickets to In the Heights are as hot as the musical’s sultry summer setting. The show is Actors’ anniversary gift to South Florida, and it’s one worth claiming for yourself.