Pollard Theatre Company has become adept at staging musicals set as far from Guthrie as you can get both culturally and geographically. To wit, last year’s Passing Strange (South Central Los Angeles and Europe) and the current In the Heights (Washington Heights’ neighborhood of upper Manhattan). And brother, are they putting on one hell of a show.
Winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical and Original Score (Quiara Alegria Hudes, book; Lin-Manuel Miranda, music and lyrics), Heights is a classic book-musical with a modern patina. The show concerns the largely immigrant denizens of a multiethnic neighborhood who struggle with the tragedies and triumphs of human existence. Jon Young’s detailed, scruffy scenic design, with the George Washington Bridge in the background (abetted by Michael James’ costumes of thrift-shop authenticity), shows a local hair salon, a combination deli and grocery, a taxi company and modest apartment buildings. Here, good, hardworking people play the lottery, gossip, suffer rising rents, navigate the confusions of the English language and pursue their dreams. Some dreams are realized, while others, alas, are not.
Kudos to W. Jerome Stevenson’s excellent direction of the 21-actor cast and 8-piece band (led by Todd Malicoate) and to Hui Cha Poos’ exuberant choreography, which reflects Miranda’s hip-hop-infused score and is danced by the terrific cast.
The musical’s leads are more firsts among equals. In an engaging performance, Matthew Alvin Brown raps his way through the show as the proprietor of the deli/grocery with Aaron Stewart as his young, horn-dog employee.
Many of the characters aspire to leave the Heights. Delightful newcomer Victoria Trujillo plays a Stanford University student who has unexpectedly returned home to her parents, the rock-solid Ben Hall and Lin Sanchez. Trujillo’s character is involved in a difficult romantic relationship with an ambitious employee of her father’s taxi company, played by J. Lamont Thomas. Thomas’ song “Benny’s Dispatch” is a highlight of the first act.
As the feisty Daniela, Gwendolyn Evans (unrecognizable from her brilliant performance as Annie Sullivan in Pollard’s The Miracle Worker) leads a trio of cosmetologists, including the conflicted Vanessa (Jennifer Teel) and cute Carla (Tiffany Tuggle). Their song “No Me Diga” is a tutorial on the art of gossiping.
Ashley Cain does a fine job as Abuela Claudia, a poignant character who was to be played by Cristela Carrizales until she broke her leg during a late rehearsal, delaying the show’s opening a week.
All of these elements come together to form a nearly perfect whole far from the real Washington Heights.