Up at the break of day
I wake up and I got this little punk I gotta chase away
Pop the grate at the crack of dawn
Sing while I wipe down the awning
Hey y'all, Good morning!
So begins "In The Heights", the 2008 Tony-winning Broadway musical, gingerly but decisively setting the scene and bringing the audience into its world. It's a bold open for this groundbreaking show, since many audience members are surprised by the nakedness - the main character, Usnavi, is talking directly to us, rapping to very little music, and it's a bit startling. But by the time the music builds and more characters join in verse, you're there with them in Washington Heights. It's one of those opening numbers that actually gives you chills, if done well.
Luckily, the new production at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre (WST) is indeed done well. With a cast of mainly Latino actors (thank goodness), this regional production of "In The Heights" impressed me in many ways, and almost made me stop thinking about the Broadway production.
The show tells the story of a tight-knit community in the Washington Heights-section of way-northern Manhattan, in a neighborhood primarily composed of Dominican immigrants. Those in the neighborhood all work hard and struggle to make ends meet, but they would do anything for their friends and neighbors, who are more like family. The local abuela is the neighborhood abuela, and when one of them suffers, they all suffer.
"In the heights
I flip the lights
And start my day
There are fights
And endless debts
And bills to pay"
While I reminisced about Miranda's unlimited charisma and talent a few times, the Walnut Street's Usnavi, Perry Young, took over the role with aplomb. You miss some lines, as few people can spit out so many words as clearly as Miranda, but Young did an impressive job overall with the challenging role.
A few actors in the WST cast stunned me with their superb performances. Two supporting male characters, Benny and Sonny, respectively provide heart and comedy in the show, and it's really important to cast actors who understand their characters' sometimes unpleasant behavior. Rhett George as Benny was one of my favorite parts of this production, with his gorgeous voice and likability. You root for him even when he's being kind of a jerk. Matthew J. Harris as Sonny was hilarious, and a few of his lines elicited the most laughter from the audience, thanks to his great comedic timing. The adorable Robin de Jesus played Sonny in the Broadway production, and while I love Robin, I don't remember loving his Sonny as much as I did Harris's.
One actor that stood out to me in a negative way was in the role of Daniela, because every time I looked at her she seemed to be making the same face - a big, wide-eyed smile. It just seemed off. Maybe this was the one case when original Broadway performer, the incredible Andrea Burns, was too much on my mind, but I think it's at least in part a misstep in direction.
The real gripe I have with this production, that I wish they would work on ASAP, was that the sound seemed off! For a show that won the Tony for Best Orchestrations, the orchestrations for this production sometimes got in the way, and sometimes were lacking. For example, my favorite musical number in the show, "96,000", features the characters taking turns in the first half rapping about what they'd do if they won the lottery, and then in the second half the backbeat builds behind the verses and then the full chorus belts into song. This climax gives legitimate chills even on the cast recording. However, in the WST production, I didn't even realize this section had started until the song was over. You couldn't hear the beat, you couldn't hear Usnavi's continued rap, and you somehow couldn't hear the entire ensemble of the show singing the chorus. There are some serious sound issues if twenty-odd people singing the same thing couldn't break through this strange din of confusion.
Even with these issues, the WST production is solid and definitely recommended. The overwhelmingly white, senior audience seemed to enjoy every moment of it, which pleased me to no end. "In The Heights" is a fresh, thrillingly modern show, enjoyed by anyone and everyone, and the WST is doing some fabulous work.
Correction: The original version of this review named Karen Olivo as the original Nina, when it was Mandy Gonzalez. No more writing at midnight!