Stirring story told through song and dance at Oregon Cabaret Theatre
By Lee Juillerat
It’s not necessary to travel to New York City to see a Broadway-quality musical.
Instead, catch an afternoon or evening performance of “In the Heights,” an energetic, dazzlingly choreographed and incredibly produced musical that won four Tony Awards in 2008, including best musical. “Heights” was conceived by and features the music of Lin Manuel-Miranda, who’s best known for multi-award winning “Hamilton.”
Enlivened and enriched by rap and Latin influences, “Heights” is set in the heat of summer in the predominantly Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, New York City. Spoken words are few, with most “talking” done by song by all members of the cast. Trying to pick highlights is nearly impossible, with one pulsating, often heart-felt musical piece after another, almost always with precise and daring choreography.
Because of its setting in a relatively poor neighborhood, “Heights” has, but isn’t overburdened with, social commentary. Several storylines intersect. Nina, for example, has just returned from her first year at prestigious Stanford University, where life hasn’t gone as hoped. Her parents, wanting her to have opportunities they haven’t experienced, offer to sell their car dispatch business to help fund her expensive tuition. Benny, who works at the car dispatch business, falls in love with Nina.
“Heights” narrator Usnavi — so named, it’s explained, because one of the first sights his immigrant parents saw on arriving in the U.S. was a sign with the words, U.S. Navy — owns a small bodega, or grocery store, and has dreams of moving and expanding his business. Another player, Vanessa, who works at a neighborhood beauty salon, has visions of living in a West Village apartment. Others harbor dreams — dreams that for some become realities when Abuela, an older woman who lives alone, wins a $96,000 lottery jackpot, but dies shortly after and leaves portions of her winnings to neighbors.
“Heights” is a poignant, heartfelt but never sappy story of finding and accepting “true home.”
Maria Torres, “Heights” director and choreographer, created the show for the Cabaret stage. The acting is precise, with a cast that features actors mostly not previously seen in Southern Oregon, including Michel Alejandro Castillo, Alysia Noelle Beltran, Aline Cenal, Kristopher Stanley Ward, Cory Simmons, Ernesto Rosales, Edlyn Gonzalez and Amanda Lopez. Everyone gets to show their singing and dancing skills with 13 musical numbers in the first act and another 10 in the second.
Because of the Cabaret’s intimate size — it is a remodeled church — the musical accompaniment sometimes muddles words and lyrics. But the play shines, delivering a level of musical theater that displays and broadcasts its Broadway roots.
“In the Heights” is a musical that brings the always-excellent Cabaret experience to new heights.
Email freelance writer Lee Juillerat at email@example.com.