News Column

Soaring 'Heights' Paramount does right by Tony-winning musical

September 20, 2013


The energetic regional theater debut of "In the Heights" at the Paramount Theatre shows that this ambitious Aurora venue's Broadway Subscription Series is growing from strength to strength.

For the 2013-14 season, the run of each Paramount musical has been expanded from three weeks to four to meet demand. And in the hands of Jeff Award-winning director Rachel Rockwell, the 2008 Tony Award-winning musical "In the Heights" decisively lives up to the Broadway-caliber work that Paramount has produced in the past.

It helps that Paramount was able to obtain Broadway designer Anna Louizos' "In the Heights" touring set for its production. Plus, the music sounds spicy-hot under music director Tom Vendafreddo, since the Paramount proudly boasts that they're performing Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman's full Broadway orchestrations. So if you missed the 2009 or 2012 tour stops of "In the Heights" in Chicago, then you can easily catch up by heading to Aurora without losing out on any of the quality.

Co-written by Tony Award-winning songwriter/performer Lin-Manuel Miranda ("The Electric Company") and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes ("Water By the Spoonful"), "In the Heights" is a vibrant celebration of the largely Latino community of immigrants and their second-generation children in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood.

Rather than exploring heated life-or-death conflicts, the authors are more concerned about presenting vibrant characters (like David Baida as the "Piragua Guy") and everyday slice-of-life struggles. Usnavi (Nick Demeris), the son of deceased parents from the Dominican Republic, starts out as the show's main narrator before blending in with the rest of the ensemble. Singing mostly in hip- hop rhymes, Usnavi wryly observes the hectic bustle of life from his corner coffee and grocery shop, where his resentful underage cousin, Sonny (Luis Herrera), also helps out.

Usnavi is fiercely protective of his unrelated "Abuela (Grandma) Claudia" (Paula Scrofano), who served as a substitute parent and who is beloved throughout the community. Usnavi also has his eye on the appealing beautician Vanessa (Caitlainne Rose Gurreri) -- who works in a salon run by the gossipy duo of Daniela (Keely Vasquez) and Carla (Lillian Castillo) -- when he's not chasing away the tagger Graffiti Pete (amazing break dancer Kris Santiago).

Across the way is a car and limousine service run by the Rosario family, headed by Kevin (Ricardo Gutierrez) and Camila (Lucinda Johnston). Their daughter Nina (Christina Nieves) returns from Stanford University with some bad news, and conflict builds when Nina starts falling for her father's longtime employee, Benny (Jonathan Butler-Duplessis).

Supporting the strong leading players is a dynamic dance ensemble, forever in swirling motion thanks to the rhythmic choreography of Katie Spelman. If there are any complaints to be leveled at Paramount's "In the Heights," it's the sound design that sometimes swallows up the lyrics (particularly necessary for Demeris as Usnavi to get across).

Though there is a mild dose of Spanish spoken and sung in the show, those who don't speak the language should be able to follow along just fine. While there are moments when "In the Heights" strains to keep the dramatic momentum flowing (particularly when the celebratory production number "Carnaval Del Barrio" is foisted out of nowhere), the show still entertains throughout.

And with its community portrayal of families and individuals striving for their own dreams, "In the Heights" stresses how immigrants -- with their desire to build better lives for themselves and their families -- have made America stronger.

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