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Theater performance reaches new ‘Heights’

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘In the Heights’ pushes against homogeneity, highlights student talent

“Hamilton” — the musical that shook the world of Broadway — has become so ubiquitous that nowadays, people often think of the play before the political figure. Thanks to this stratospheric success, Lin-Manuel Miranda has achieved international fame and a renewed interest in some of his earlier works. Chief among those is “In the Heights,” a play centered in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, which debuted in 1999.  Miranda conceived of the music and lyrics for the play while Quiara Alegría Hudes ’04 MFA wrote the book for the play.

This month, the “Heights” hype reached Brown’s Stuart Theater with a student performance. The musical focuses on an eclectic group of friends and families who live on the same block. The play’s main character and de facto narrator is bodega-owner Usnavi. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Usnavi’s father named him after a passing ship he witnessed while immigrating to America — “U.S. Navy.”

Usnavi is played by Richard Flores ’16.5, whose impressive rap style sounds uncannily similar to that of Miranda’s style, who originally played the part. In the play, Usnavi strives to make an earnest living in an area riddled with crime and poverty, contending with his impish and flighty cousin, Sonny, and vying for the affections of young hairdresser Vanessa.

“In the Heights” focuses on the complexity of the everyday lives of its characters, featuring hashed-out drama, salsa interludes and saccharine monologues. Viva Sandoval ’20 plays Nina, a college freshman returned home for the summer. Throughout the play, Nina deals with her overprotective parents’ disapproval of her choice to take a leave of absence from Stanford, as well as her relationship with Benny, her father’s employee and the only non-Hispanic character. Meanwhile, Nina’s best friend from childhood, Vanessa — played by Elise Harmon ’17 — longs to move away from Washington Heights like her studious companion.

Though the play begins slowly, it picks up during the culmination of the first half of the musical — when a blackout interrupts the characters. “We are powerless,” they croon poignantly, if a little too on the nose.

Stand-outs from this weekend’s performance include powerhouse vocalists Sandoval and Harmon, showcasing singing chops that belong on a Broadway stage. Moreover, Sandoval is the perfect Nina, capturing the character’s complex amalgamation of naivety, cleverness and innocence. Also noteworthy is the impressive acting talent of Paola Jimenez ’20, whose accent, stage presence and vocals steal the show.

On the Broadway stage, “In the Heights” was met with mixed reviews. Many critics lauded the scoring and performances, but some felt that a musical with tickets that sometimes cost over $1,000 was not the best way to comment on social issues like gentrification. With “Hamilton,” too, Miranda faced similar criticisms — while bringing diversity, inclusivity and representation to the theater is an undisputedly crucial feat, it can alienate exactly the people who these creations are supposed to include.

That being said, now more than ever, it is direly important to perform these works again and again. In these tumultuous times, the charge to push back against homogeneity is being led by the art world with great success.

“In the Heights” will continue its run at Brown this upcoming weekend.


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