A composer and playwright who enjoys an unparalleled degree of critical and commercial success in his field, Lin-Manuel Miranda could be considered the Beyoncé of the theatrical world. His best-known show, Hamilton: An American Musical, sold out its debut run, grossed more money in a single week than any other play in Broadway history and received nominations for a record-setting 16 Tony awards. Miranda himself has racked up a slew of awards too, including an Emmy, three Grammys, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the Pulitzer Prize. Beginning with 2014’s Moana, he’s also embarked on a series of collaborations with Disney that will undoubtedly ensure that his name lives on in the popular consciousness as long as his most famous protagonist’s.
So when the Rep announced that they’d be mounting a production of his first musical, In the Heights (it runs through October 28), audience expectations for the show quickly soared as high as a soprano’s aria. And that sense of enthusiasm was palpable when the show opened on Saturday night. Hundreds of eager audience members streamed into the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse theater, filling the 720-seat auditorium nearly to capacity.
The play’s director, May Adrales, clearly understood how much hype surrounded the production and pulled out all the stops when casting the show, holding auditions in four cities – Milwaukee, Chicago, Seattle and New York – to ensure that the ensemble would be as diverse and vibrant as the predominantly Spanish-speaking New York City neighborhood in which the play is set.
As a result, the lead actors boast resumes as impressive as any seen at the Rep in recent years. Ryan Alvarado, who reprises Miranda’s breakout role of bodega owner Usnavi, landed a part in the touring production of Hamilton. Yassmin Alers, who plays the kindly Abuela Claudia, was one of Rent’s original company members. And Karmine Alers, a pitch-perfect Camila, has Broadway credits under her belt as well. (Interestingly, Yassmin and Karmine are real-life sisters who auditioned for the show together). Sophia Macías, who makes her Rep debut as first-generation college student Nina, doesn’t have as many acting credits to her name as some of the other cast members, but she delivers a flawless rendition of “Breathe” that should make her an audience favorite anyway.
Even the actors cast for smaller roles have the singing chops, and comedic timing, you’d expect to see at the Goodman in Chicago, or the Guthrie in Minneapolis. Lillian Castillo, who plays wise-cracking salon owner Daniela, deserves special praise for her impeccable delivery.
Additional kudos go to the show’s choreographer and dancers, who enliven every scene they appear in, particularly the one that closes out the first act – when the dancers transform the theater into a lively nightclub, leaping and whirring around the stage as the actors launch into a propulsive rendition of the song “Blackout.”
None of In the Heights’ songs, it should be noted, achieve the same degree of giddy hip-hop grandiosity as Hamilton’s best numbers (and the book sometimes comes off as overly sentimental). But the Rep’s uniformly excellent cast was still able to wring plenty of emotional resonance from the show’s solos and duets. And in ensemble numbers like “96,000” their voices blend beautifully, slowly building to the sort of frenetic crescendo that characterizes many of Miranda’s most memorable songs.
Ultimately, though In the Heights never flies quite as high as Hamilton, it deserves credit for breathing new life into the musical genre (when it premiered on Broadway, in 2008, it thrilled theater-goers with its heady blend of hip-hop and salsa-inspired song-and-dance numbers) and for shining a spotlight on a Latinx neighborhood, illuminating the stories of its aspiring artists, its honor students, its small business owners.
And Adrales clearly hopes that the Rep’s production of the play will resonate with Milwaukee’s own Latinx community and inspire future generations to chart their own course to the American Dream. This idea is especially evident in the show’s final number, when the actors rush the stage waving flags – from the many different Latin American countries they hail from – high above their heads while belting out the lyrics to “The Finale.”
“You hear that music in the air?” Alvarado sings, his voice carrying across the theater, strong and confident. “Take the train to the top of the world, and I’m there. I’m home!”
In the Heights has certainly found a happy home at the Rep.