Livermore’s Bankhead to present “In the Heights”
By Lou Fancher
Before there was “Hamilton,” the 2015 Broadway musical that has earned East Coast-based actor, composer, lyricist and rap artist Lin-Manuel Miranda a warehouse of awards, there were his YouTube videos that were viewed millions of times, a performance at the White House, a MacArthur “Genius” grant, multiple honorary degrees, a hot hip-hop group, audio recordings, television and film credits.
And before all of those goodies, there was “In the Heights.” Disproving the sometimes held and erroneous belief that Miranda was “discovered” after taking the New York theater scene by storm last year, Miranda’s 2008 debut musical received four Tony Awards and was recognized as a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in drama among other accolades.
All of which explains why Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre will bring “In The Heights” and the vibrancy of New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood to the Bankhead Theater from Oct. 22 through Nov. 6.
The musical is written by Quiara Alegria Hudes and tells the story of Dominican Republic-born Usnavi, whose parents immigrate with him to America. Upon arrival, they see a ship with a “U.S. Navy” sign on it and give their son his new name. After his parents die during his early childhood, Usnavi grows up to become the owner of a small Washington Heights bodega; a protector of Abuela Claudia, the grandmotherly woman who raises him; a wanna-be-boyfriend of Vanessa; and a dreamer who pines for a return to his beloved homeland.
Gentrification, poverty, power cuts and other traumas are unstoppable forces that happen but never transcend the love and close connections within the Heights largely Dominican- and Puerto Rican-American community.
Miranda’s music and lyrics blend hip-hop, rap and popular song with a variety of dance styles. TVRT’s production is directed and choreographed by Christina Lazo with musical direction by Sierra Dee.
“We had a discussion about the show and whether or not there was an audience for it here in the Tri-Valley,” says Lazo. “We say it’s by the same person as Hamilton, to get the word out, but it’s such a strong show, we knew we’d find an audience.”
Along with putting thought into the show’s audience, Lazo says casting the production involved similar intentional considerations.
“We were primarily looking at Latino actors at first. Authenticity and people with the cultural background were essential. We have a solid mix; Latino, Filipino and some, I’m not sure of what they’re ethnicity is, but they’re people who honor and are invested in the culture. It’s local actors telling the story beautifully — that’s the most important thing.”
The story, revealed largely through ebullient action and Miranda’s signature, rapid-fire spoken word, is a bear, according to actor Alexander Gomez, who plays Usnavi. “Technically, it’s just told so fast. My biggest fear is to miss a word. It will throw off your entire rap to even forget a single lyric.”
Not only would the 35-year-old Sacramento-based actor’s rap be disrupted, the ensemble’s choreography and the songs of other principle cast members are reliant on his perfect word-keeping.
“Gomez has to hold and sustain rhythm and because he does most of the rap, it weighs on him,” says Lazo. “If he goes off, the problems all trickle down to everybody.”
Fortunately, this is his second go-round: the half-Spanish, half-Russian Gomez performed the role in 2014 with Broadway by the Bay. More familiar with the language this time, he’s nevertheless excited to stretch outside of his comfort zone with one scene that’s “all the stages of grief, expressed in five minutes” and a role whose character has a heart that “hopes and wants a sense of belonging, comfort and to be happy where he’s at.”
Lazo says she selected Gomez as much for the generous and relatable behaviors she observed in the audition room as for his acting and vocal skills. “He had heart,” she says.
In a similar fashion, “In the Heights’ ” appeal is found in its simplicity and music design that allows entry for a wide audience. “Miranda has said in interviews that he was aware when he wrote the music and lyrics of including hip-hop — but also standard Broadway musical fare — to keep that already established audience coming,” says Lazo.
She first saw the show on Broadway in 2008 and was blown away. “It’s authentic, joyful storytelling. It was like seeing people you see in your own neighborhood or city. It brought new people to the theater.”
If there are Latino stereotypes — machismo behavior, crime — Lazo says they are broken and eliminated by the fact that the show is largely written from Miranda’s real-life experience.
“The play was workshopped for so long that script input and adjustments have created characters that are full-rounded people,” she says. “They’re not romanticized, surrounded by crime or without love. They’re people looking at what they have and finding wealth and joy in community.”