In The Heights

by Robert Bullen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday December 22, 2009

The cast of the national tour of "In the Heights"
The cast of the national tour of "In the Heights"  

Hurry! There's a celebration going on at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. It's called In the Heights, and it'll make you shimmy, sing, laugh, and, perhaps, shed a tear or two - but only until January 3.

Conceived by 29 year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights explores a tightly-knight neighborhood founded in love, laughter, tradition, hopes and dreams. Based on his life growing up in Washington Heights, Miranda created this show to celebrate the community that influenced and shaped him as a young adult. And from the moment Usnavi, a charismatic shop owner played by Kyle Beltran in this first-rate national tour, introduces us into his world, we know we're in for a great time.

However, little does Usnavi know that his world is about to change forever as major events - some driven by fate and some born out of necessity - take place during one scorching July 4 weekend.

Usnavi may be our gateway into his community, but once we are in, we feel right at home. You know these people. You don't have to be an immigrant, a second- or third-generation child of an immigrant, or even Latino, to make a connection. The struggles and desires these people have are universal. And, thankfully, we have an eager, lively cast to embody these tales.

This spirited ensemble features some notable standouts. The darling Arielle Jacobs as Nina, the driven, young undergrad who comes home with disappointing news for her eager parents, is giving an honest, emotionally raw performance. As Nina's mother, it's great to see Natalie Toro, a former Evita, in a featured role perfectly suited to her skills. If you want to learn how to steal every scene you're in, study the effervescent Shaun Taylor-Corbett's performance as Usnavi's young shop assistant. Also, keep an eye out for Isabel Santiago as feisty fireball hairdresser Daniela - a crowd favorite who's walking (and dancing!) on what seems to be a twisted ankle.

Regrettably, there are a few minor issues with two leads. Beltran is a charismatic and engaging enough Usnavi, though he's a touch too young and, at times, timid in his delivery. Over time, I'm sure he'll get better at commanding the stage and addressing the audience with more authority. And the very beautiful Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer as Vanessa comes off as a little too aloof to make us truly root for Usnavi as he tries to win her attention. You feel he could do better. However, these flaws do not take away from this production's unending energy.

The score is like confetti for the ears. Miranda, a self-professed Broadway baby, infuses hip hop, rap, meringue, salsa and old-fashioned musical theatre conventions in his highly eclectic score. (The trumpet players in the pit must have embouchures of steel! That's some wailing going on there!) The first act finale blends all these styles together at full speed before it all reaches a frenzied peak. It's a great way to end an act - especially when you have Andy Blankenbuehler's zesty, free-spirited choreography to move things along.

It was recently announced that a movie version of In the Heights is in the works, with Miranda starring as Usnavi - a role he originated on Broadway. I look forward to seeing how they will translate it for the screen; however, I can't imagine how it could fully capture the spirit of the stage production. After all: it's nearly impossible to stuff confetti back into the can after it's released.

In the Heights plays through January 3 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. For more information, visit

A native midwesterner, Robert is a self-confessed Chicago theatre addict. You can read more about his addiction at