Saturday, September 21, 2013

Palo Alto Players: In the Heights

Now that it has been five years after the original show closed and the rights have been released, numerous theaters in the Bay Area are performing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical In The Heights. The Palo Alto Players’ rendition, running until the end of the month, combines the exciting score with a talented, spirited cast to create a show of integrity and wonder.

In The Heights concerns the entwined stories of numerous people on an increasingly gentrified block of Washington Heights in New York City. Usnavi, our protagonist, struggles to keep his grocery store in business as he pursues Vanessa, a hairdresser at a salon down the street. Vanessa longs to leave the barrio and move into an apartment downtown. Kevin and Camila Roasario barely keep their taxi business afloat, while their daughter, Nina, returns home after working two jobs and studying at Stanford proved too difficult to her. And through it all, a lone piragua vendor competes with an ice cream truck for customers.

The cast was extremely strong and did a wonderful job: Standout voices include Jia Taylor as Vanessa and Alexa Ortega as Nina. Mark Alabanza plays the small but important role of the Piragua Guy with aplomb, making the vendor’s subtle jokes with impeccable comedic timing and singing his songs with a golden voice.

The Palo Alto Players do an amazing job in conveying the economic difficulties of the characters of the play to an affluent community. Contrary to the feel-good messages of many other musicals, In The Heights portrays the humanity of people in desperate situations, and, in my opinion, it’s this kind of conflict that makes for truly great modern drama.

Interestingly, In The Heights  possesses some similarities to the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof, which nears its 50th anniversary next year: A focus on the economically disadvantaged, the clash of heritage and true love, and the enduring question: Where is your home when you’re forced to leave? I’m happy to see more modern musicals addressing these issues, especially since In The Heights modernizes the message but leaves its timeless teachings intact.

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