LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA'S Hamilton is clever, devastating, and revolutionary. Using a predominately non-white cast to recount the life of Alexander Hamilton with a hip-hop soundtrack, it's indefinitely sold out and nets around $500,000 weekly on Broadway.
But when Hamilton was still a twinkle in the MacArthur Genius' eye (Miranda also landed a Pulitzer on Monday), his first musical, In the Heights, was a Broadway hit in its own right. Thanks to Stumptown Stages and director/choreographer David Marquez, the musical (which follows a community in Washington Heights, the predominately Dominican neighborhood north of Harlem) is also a hit in Portland—like Hamilton, it's selling out quickly.
With Miranda's now-signature blend of hip-hop and lyricism, the salsa-infused show centers on Usnavi (Michael Castillo), who frets daily over his bodega's busted grate and broken fridge. He pines for Vanessa (Justine Davis) and adores his adopted abuela. His larger concerns, though, revolve around living up to his late parents' immigrant aspirations—despite his New York responsibilities, he longs to visit the Dominican Republic, the country where he was born but doesn't remember.
Still, I found myself oddly unmoved whenever Usnavi's fortunes shifted—In the Heights' secondary characters are more complex and have less contrived plotlines. Nina Rosario (Essie Canty Bertain) is a prodigal barrio daughter who returns to the Heights after a year at Stanford, mortified to admit she's dropped out. Out of everyone, she resembles Miranda's Hamilton the most—stubborn but smart, torn between where she came from and where she thinks she should be. Salim Sanchez and Matthew Snyder shine here as well, effortlessly embodying underdog roles that demand as much swagger as sincerity. It doesn't help that Castillo never quite inhabits his character: Though always on beat in his hip-hop-heavy songs, he lacks a certain flow that keeps Usnavi from truly coming to life.
Carmen Brantley-Payne (who plays Nina's mother, Camila) kills it in her second-act solo number "Enough," where she admonishes her husband and daughter for placing their pride before their family. Though one of the shortest songs, it's also one of the most stunning. And while the small stage is often at odds with the vibrant cast, "Carnaval del Barrio" brings out the best in everyone, converging plot and musicality with dramatic effect.
At the performance I saw, there were sound issues: Through no fault of Castillo's, Usnavi's rapid delivery lacked clarity at times, and during ensemble pieces, major strains were lost to the backing band or surrounding cast. Given that it was opening night and my first time at the boxy Brunish Theatre, I didn't know whether to blame my seat or the sound mixing. While not paramount to plot, the audience may have missed out on the musical's messages around gentrification and class struggle. Sometimes overt (the anthem "We are powerless/We are powerless" during a blackout), sometimes more subtle (the local piragüero, selling shaved ice from his pushcart, is threatened by the creamy menace of Mr. Softee), it's a darker motif in an otherwise uplifting show.
But the show's early shortcomings are easily overlooked given the cast's energy and charisma. Until Hamilton's national tour—wait for it, wait for it—this is a great chance to experience a Miranda musical.
In the Heights
Stumptown Stages at Brunish Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, Thurs-Fri 7:30 pm, Sat-Sun 2 & 7:30 pm, plus Wed April 27 at 7:30 pm, through May 1, $25-40, stumptownstages.org