A few quick thoughts on the (mostly) very fine College of the Sequoias production of “In the Heights,” which continues through Sunday:
Knockout performance: Rebekah Rae Robles as Nina Rosario, the high-achieving-but-troubled college student from the scrappy Washington Heights neighborhood highlighted in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, really shines. Right from her opening song, “Breathe,” I felt as if she was breathing in sync with her character. Her vocals are smooth when need be and strong/rough/sassy when the moment requires, and she has that indefinable stage presence that makes an audience feel comfortable in her presence. When she sings “Everything I Know,” a song of mourning and celebration, it’s one of those moments in theater in which you can just feel the connection in the house.
The orchestra is great. Confession: For the first few scenes, I thought I was listening to recorded tracks because of the professional sound. (The orchestra is offstage instead of in the pit.) Then I realized things were live, and I was impressed with the 1) balance between instrumentalists and singers; and 2) conductor Michael Tackett’s ability to communicate a raucous musical energy. One of the hardest things for a production with live music to get right is not letting the percussion overwhelm everything else, and I never felt that way in this show.
Many of the principal cast members get a chance to shine, both vocally and emotionally. My most favorable impressions: Dominic Grijalva, as Usnavi, the neighborhood bodega owner, offers a world-weary charm tempered with sweet exuberance. Camille Gaston finds the sentimental underpinnings of Daniela, the gossipy hair-salon owner. Dominic Chapa’s Sonny, who looks up to but also chafes at the oversight of Usnavi, his cousin, gives a brisk, bright performance. Alina Gonzalez, as Vanessa (Usnavi’s potential love interest), delivers impressive vocals and a warm presence. I was moved by Alyssa Nicole Clark and Juan Luis Guzman as Nina’s parents, and a scene in which the mother puts her foot down during a family argument soars.
Overall the direction is strong, but there are some clunky/sluggish moments. Director Chris Mangels is mostly masterful in bringing together the production, music and acting elements – and his multi-level set is beautiful – but some of the big ensemble numbers feel a little messy, such as the lottery song “96,000.” Biggest transgressor: the final scene of the first act, when the musical numbers “The Club” and “Blackout” don’t unfold with the confidence they should in terms of Linda Amaral’s choreography and Steve Lamar’s lighting design. These two numbers should feel razor-sharp and they seem a little sloppy and out of control. While the lyrics of “Blackout,” which features a number of characters singing over each other, are never going to be the easiest to understand, it turns into a major mushy sound moment in this production. Part of my less than stellar impression of the first act might have something to do with my views on the show’s writing and music: I think “in the Heights” is a good, but not great, show. In terms of this production, however: Despite my quibbles, much of it feels very well put together, and the second act in particular feels more taut and sure of itself.
The immigrant theme comes through loud and clear. This production of “In the Heights” comes at a particularly volatile moment in our nation’s discourse on the subject. To experience the nuanced characters in this show – hard-working, ambitious, patriotic, funny, loving, hopeful – is to be reminded of the riches that immigrants have brought to this country since its inception.
In the Heights
- 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
- College of the Sequoias Theatre, 915 S. Mooney Blvd., Visalia
- cos.ticketleap.com, 559-730-3907
- $24, $22 seniors, $20 students