In the Heights Musical: Review and Cast Interviews

Yesterday, we caught the opening matinee of the four-time Tony-winning Best Musical In the Heights presented by DanCap at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. This colourful and uplifting performance is about a hard-working Latino neighbourhood in the Washington Heights section of New York City and its vivacious residents, all of whom share a common search for something more for themselves or their families. Their universal story centres on the themes of aspirations, family and what it means to be home, as told through upbeat hip-hop, meringue and salsa music and dance, with some key characters rapping throughout.  

Neighbourhood staple Usnavi is a bodega owner who dreams of selling his business and opening a bar in the Dominican Republic. He is in love with Vanessa, a struggling and loveable employee of the hair salon next door who dreams of bigger things than Washington Heights, like renting her own apartment outside of the neighbourhood. Nina, the neighbourhood kid who was once most likely to succeed, returns home from a scholarship at Stanford only to eventually tell her parents that she was forced to drop out due financial restraints and fatigue from having to work multiple jobs to buy books. She is in love with Benny, who has worked for her parents’ limousine service for years and who dreams of one day opening his own business. Her father doesn’t approve of the union and is prepared to sell the business to allow for Nina to continue her education. Shortly before dying, Usnavi’s grandmother, the beloved Abuela Claudia, wins the lottery, (yes, it reminded us of Alanis Morrissette’s “Ironic” as well), forcing the residents to contemplate what they would do if they won $96,000.

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The performance itself was captivating on all fronts as the actors truly demonstrated that they were fresh, multitalented performers. We remained impressed and entertained by the vocals, rap and dance throughout, but also to how connected the actors seemed to the story, their characters and each other. That’s because they were. We got to sit down with Jeffrey Nunez (bottom photo, right), Celina Clarich Polanco and Presilah Nunez before the show and they each told us the same thing; they had seen the play many times before they became a part of it, had been auditioning for the show for months (or even years) that and that they always knew this was a musical they would like to be a part of. The three Latino actors highlighted the fact that there are very few Latino-centered musicals and they found many similarities between themselves, the story and characters.

Jeffrey Nunez is the main understudy for the role of Usnavi and performed on opening night  (as goes the business, lead Perry Young hurt his foot and will be out for a bit). Like Usnavi, Nunez actually worked at a bodega growing up in a New Jersey neighbourhood as colourful as Washington Heights. “When I first saw the show, I saw my family on stage and could relate to every character,” said Jeffrey Nunez. “I connected with the performance years before I was cast to be in it; I saw it two times off Broadway and eleven times on Broadway.” Celina Clarich Polanco (below, purple), who plays Nina’s mother, Camila, echoes the sentiment, saying, “This was a time to tell our story and share our culture.”

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After a series of rigorous auditions and callbacks, In the Heights was cast in September and rehearsals began immediately. We were surprised to hear (especially after seeing the performance later on in the day) that the whole show was put together in just two weeks, with a week of technical. The cast attributes the efficiency of the seemingly short preparation time on the involvement of their seasoned and skilled Broadway team of choreographers and directors who know the production inside out.

The actors connected with the play’s main themes of dreams, family and home. “The play really is about following your dreams and also your heart,” says Presilah Nunez (bottom photo, left), who plays Vanessa. The stunning young actress knew she wanted to perform since she was inspired by The Little Rascals blooper reel as a child but nonetheless applied and was accepted to college for forensic psychology. Following her passion for the performance arts, she decided to defer her acceptance for a year after she got her first tour that took her to China and hasn’t looked back since.

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No matter what though, as cliché as it sounds, sometimes there really is no place like home. Polanco knows the feeling of coming home, after having lived the typical often nomadic of an actor all over the United States for many years. Jeffrey Nunez attended Penn State for four years before returning home to the quicker paced life in New York. Presilah Nunez speaks of living on a bus while touring and the feeling of returning to the comforts of home after it’s all over. As some of the shows resonating lyrics exclaim, “everything is easier when you’re home” and that “when you have a problem, you come home.”

Countless young professionals, ourselves included, have dreamed of fleeing our city of origin when things seem dull; we get restless, have our hearts broken or are faced with tragedy. We find ourselves tempted by the possibilities offered by a new city or even country. At the end, however, no matter where we temporarily escape or reside, many YPs return back to their city of origin where they have fostered relationships and connections and developed bonds with local streets and establishments. And if they don’t move back home, most can recall the feeling of returning home for a visit and the warmth that it provides. This theme reminded us of one central to our last DanCap performance, Green Day’s American Idiot, in which the characters flee their suburban safety nets to the limitless possibilities of the big city, only to return home a year later with a new found appreciation for their roots.

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Like the character of Nina, many YPs can probably attest to feeling a desire to please our parents, make them proud or to achieve a life more rich than the one we grew up with. In In the Heights, the characters all pursue different goals but vehemently believe in their dreams and that their hard work will pay off eventually and don’t give up on them or what makes them happy. It does, however, highlight the fact that the pursuit of dreams should not necessarily come at the expense of other things in your life, like friends and family.

In this sense, it serves a reminder of the often-ignored concept among busy young professionals to take time to reflect upon the things and people who really matter and to enjoy moments instead of being caught up in the next plan of action. As Usnavi says of his grandmother, “she sang praise to the things we ignored,” like breadcrumbs for the birds and the stars. You don’t always appreciate what you have until it’s gone and sometimes all you need is in front if you. Although In the Heights centres on an isolated little Latino community, everyone can relate to its core themes, especially the young professional.

Check out In the Heights  at the Toronto Centre for the Arts now through February 19th.

Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes. Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Directed by Joseph A. Calloway and Thomas Kail; until Feb. 19 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St. 416-644-3665.