By Ian Rigg
For any unfortunate theatregoers who missed the beloved Broadway show before, a brief synopsis of In The Heights: Over the course of 4th of July in 2004, a bodega-owner in the barrio of Washington Heights welcomes patrons into a tight-knit Latinx community on the cusp of change, where rent is on the rise, gentrification rolls in, a heat wave blazes, and nothing burns as brightly as the residents’ dreams.
Now is exactly the time to catch the unique and revelatory show in a ground-breaking collaboration between Vision Latino Theatre Company and Jedlicka Performing Arts Center.
Director Xavier M. Custodio poignantly makes community the driving force of this compelling, heartfelt, moving musical production that fully utilizes every inch of Jedlicka’s premier space and is brimming with passion and life. Perhaps Lin Manuel Miranda’s best work calls for the talent to match, and of course Custodio and his crew have gathered an absolutely stacked cast – each of whom is a person of color. Vison Latino Theatre Company espouses the message “Latinos with a Vision,” and the artists live their mission: to bring awareness to Latinos past, present and future through storytelling, breaking down racial boundaries and opening minds of audiences to Latino struggles and perseverance through theatre.
In 2019, their work should not be revolutionary, but Custodio and company provide hope that things can change, and must be commended for their daring persistence and deep desire to depict lives too often denied the limelight. That it’s a tremendous triumph of a show is additional icing on the cake – if you’re physically free, go see this show. It will not disappoint.
One of the many things to love about this production is that it’s jam-packed with lived-in details: everywhere you look onstage, there’s something captivating going on. Set designer Nicholas James Schwartz builds a brilliant microcosm of the block. The audience can see inside Daniela’s Salon as characters work, Usnavi’s bodega functionally pulls out of the wall, and street art colors the colorful buildings – Schwartz is also an unbelievable muralist who should grace the walls of Chicago itself. It’s perfectly complemented by the emotive lighting design of Lena Aubrey, whose Act 1 finale fireworks display in a blackout is a wonder to witness.
Costume designer Elle Erickson only further pulls us into the summer of 2004 in Washington Heights with breezy, colorful summer layers, jewelry, and individually styled flair that perfectly encapsulates each characters’ personality.
It all comes to glorious life under choreographer Yariana Baralt Torres, who conjures moves that are equal parts emotive, enflamed and effortlessly cool, and allows featured dancers like Aiszah Maria Rangel to shine.
The only issue opening night was a tech issue of audio balance, and these were only a problem because one yearns to hear every word delivered by the powerhouse performers. For if the creative team are the flame, the cast are the fireworks. The clearly tight-knit ensemble dazzles and delights with dramatic gravitas and authentic truth, and the rest of Chicagoland theatre companies should take notes.
The talented Arik Vega takes the role originated by writer Miranda and makes it completely his own. As the audience’s narrator and anchor to the show, Vega nails Usnavi’s humor, insight and heart with a passionate pathos for the block he reaffirms is home.
Jocelyn Sanchez is simply the perfect Nina – her soaring and sensitive voice effortlessly captures the pressure of a brilliant first-generation college student bearing the burdens her home’s hopes ride on, finally falling in love with a man her father doesn’t want her to be with.
With a charm and vocal flair, Michael Fosha shines as Benny, inhabiting an aspirational man who learned the language, but can’t get his would-be father-in-law to listen. He and Sanchez nail the sweet starcrossed “Sunrise” that opens Act 2.
Johnny Garcia carefully crafts a tenderness behind the iron-willed owner of Rosario Car Service, who knows full well the cost of dreams but can unwittingly imposes his own on others. If her onstage husband is emotive ice, Ana Santos is logical flame, a stellar soloist with a singular voice that would warm every ear on a vintage radio station: she makes the powerful finale that much greater.
Andreece Nikudinovski is a star as the vivacious Vanessa. An excellent singer and dancer, she also expertly crafts a character with guarded sarcasm and chip-on-the-shoulder charm as she struggles to escape her mother’s alcoholism and the barrio that to everyone else felt like home, but that to her felt like prison. Vega and Nikudinovski also spark a cute and fraught chemistry in the show’s “will-they-wont-they” situation between Usnavi and Vanessa.
Joshua Zambrano is a masterclass in comedic timing. As Usnavi’s loveable wise-guy cousin Sonny, Zambrano oozes charisma and clandestinely continues to prove he’s the great guy you’d want in your corner.
The show is about community and the strong bond everyone on the block shares, so it’s telling to the strong direction and the cast’s innate talent and chemistry that any two together prove comedic gold: founding member Yajaira Custodio is a true delight as straight-talking salon-owner Daniela, pairing perfectly with the sublime space cadet comedy of Daniela Martinez’s Carla. Each have sterling voices, and paired together they float across the airwaves like sonic honey.
Maria Blanco’s badass breakdancing and bombastic delivery reveal the heart of gold within Graffiti Pete, and Santos DeNova’s golden-voiced Piraguero steals every scene-change he wheels his cool treats across.
Everyone onstage turns in a powerful performance, but if there’s a surefire one that will burn into audience’s brains as both mural and memory, it’s Yolanda Treece. As the block’s beloved Abuela Claudia, Treece is the show’s beating heart, and her voice and fully-embodied performance brings down the house. Her powerhouse performance reminds us that life is hard, but maybe all you need to get by is your family and un poquito paciencia y fe.
The best theatre is not just entertaining reflection of human truth, but a window into a world that makes us feel like we’re home. Not only is Vison Latino and Jedlicka’s In The Heights a thrilling evening of this thoroughly thought-out type of theatre: it’s a chance to support vital diversity and bold vision. Do the right thing – go, grow, and know: “Seguiras en mis recuerdos para siempre.”
Vison Latino Theatre Company and Jedlicka Performing Arts Center present In The Heights through October 27. More information and tickets are available here.