Tony Award-winning musical hits Pittsburgh

Abuela Claudia and Usnavi share a laugh. (credit: Courtesy of Jamie Cuba) Abuela Claudia and Usnavi share a laugh. (credit: Courtesy of Jamie Cuba)

“Lights up on Washington Heights…”

The lights went up on the set of the award-winning musical In the Heights! last Tuesday at the Benedum Center. With music and score written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, the show was the proud winner of four Tonys in 2008: Best Orchestrations, Best Choreography, Best Score, and Best Musical. In addition to this praise, a Pittsburgh native is cast in the show: Usnavi, the narrator of the story of dreams and love in Manhattan, is played by Kyle Beltran, a 2009 Carnegie Mellon graduate.

Bodega owner Usnavi greets the audience as he opens his shop, introducing himself and his neighborhood, Manhattan’s Washington Heights. As the day breaks, the characters come out one by one to begin their work days. Usnavi’s younger cousin Sonny, played by Shaun Taylor-Corbett, joins him in the shop, wisecracking and goofing off as his cousin frantically tries to find a solution for a broken refrigerator. Abuela Claudia, played by Elise Santora, their adopted grandmother, comes to the rescue by substituting condensed milk for the spoiled groceries. Usnavi is relieved, because customers have begun coming in and “I’m not makin’ any profit if the coffee isn’t light and sweet!” This statement is true for all of the characters, whose lives depend on scraping out a living in the heights, whether by selling piragua—a Puerto Rican frozen treat—working in a hair salon, or running a car service to pay for a daughter’s expensive education.

The musical portrays the dreams and fears of each of the characters vividly, displaying the characters’ will to live and succeed against the grit and hopelessness of the daily grind. Usnavi dreams of returning to his homeland, the Dominican Republic. Nina (Arielle Jacobs) dreams of making her parents and her neighborhood proud. Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.) dreams of being his own boss, a self-made business tycoon, and Vanessa (Sabrina Saloan) dreams of being free from her life in the heights and living downtown in her own studio.

Suddenly, all of these dreams have a chance of coming true when Usnavi and Sonny realize that somebody in their neighborhood bought the winning ticket of a lottery for $96,000. This leads to the unforgettable song aptly named “96,000,” in which all of the characters wonder how they could change their lives with this sum of money.

Other especially memorable songs include “Inutil,” which sums up the feelings eating at the heart of many of the characters who feel useless, unable to help themselves or others. “Paciencia y Fe” explains the credo of Abuela Claudia, the grandmother of the neighborhood who has been patient and faithful all of her life and truly living through those that she loves. “Alabanza” is an especially emotional song, touching the heart of everyone who has ever lost a loved one. Although the musical tells the story of a very specific time and place, the themes in it are universal.

The repartee between characters was quick and witty while still extremely modern, making the show both entertaining and extremely real. Spanish

speakers got a few more jokes and slips than the rest of the audience did, but the use of Spanish added to the authenticity of the story while keeping it coherent to those who only spoke English.

The choreography and performance were fast and extremely energetic — except for a few moments when the cast moved together in slow motion for a few seconds before jumping back into the racing pace of the choreography.

The struggles of the characters to survive and achieve their dreams were strongly portrayed by the actors. Rather than sympathizing with one lone hero, the audience felt for each of the characters and their inner struggles with their situations and dreams for a better life. In the Heights! contained so many emotions in it that the audience left feeling incredibly full, carrying away all of the feelings, both high and low, with a strong Latino beat pounding in their heads.