Encore Michigan

Mason Street’s ‘In The Heights’ hits the heights

Review June 25, 2019 Bridgette Redman

SAUGATUCK, Mich.–What kind of show can you put on with a cast of 12 Equity actors pulled from all around the country and led by an actor whose voice is a dead ringer for Lin-Manuel Miranda?

Turns out a pretty outstanding one.

Mason Street Warehouse’s Kurt Stamm has pulled together a cast that nails its opening production of In the Heights, the musical that preceded Miranda’s more famous Hamilton.

Like Hamilton, In the Heights is about an immigrant and an orphan, a man obsessed with legacy. It’s also done with rap music, rap and hip hop mixed with lines borrowed from classical musicals and melodic themes that repeat themselves throughout the show.

By now, Hamilton has dispelled any doubts about whether hip-hop music can work on a Broadway-style stage, which makes it a perfect time to revive Miranda’s earlier work, which has been in regional, high school and collegiate theatre for some years now.

It’s a show that takes top talent to do because the music’s lyrical demands make Sondheim’s songs seem like nursery rhymes, plus the choreography is athletic and physically demanding. There is no room for error or hesitation in In the Heights if it is going to be pulled off with the type of flair and intensity needed to wow the audiences and rip them from their seats at the end for the heart-felt standing ovation that the Mason Street Warehouse production received.

There isn’t an element of the show that Stamm allows to be less than outstanding, whether the technical design and execution, the orchestra, the cast or the set. With every element he sets the standard high and doesn’t miss when he shoots for it.

Let’s start with the cast.

Spiro Marcos plays Usnavi, a young bodega owner in Washington Heights, New York. It’s the role played by Miranda and its hard not to be reminded of the superstar because Marcos has a similar vocal quality, turns phrases the way he does and even looks a bit like him.

But Marcos isn’t doing an impersonation. He presents an Usnavi who is deeply ensconced in the barrio, cares about his neighbors and has dreams that pursue him. He’s full of energy, as is everyone in this cast, and listens intently. He is both narrator and protagonist and Usnavi’s desires drive him to achieve and to connect.

Nina V. Negron plays Nina Rosario, the one who got out, the star student who left to go to college in Stanford University. She finds a believable balance with Nina, putting in a multi-layered performance of a woman who is depressed and anxious but hasn’t lost her heart and is still able to both dream and love deeply.

Lamont Walker II’s Benny is eager to get ahead and simmers with frustration at being looked upon as an outsider by those he considers his family. Walker gives him a huge heart with just enough of an edge to show how he belongs and doesn’t belong at the same time.

Michelle Beth Herman’s Vanessa is filled with sex appeal and determination. She knows when to let frustration spill out and when to hold it tightly just before it climaxes, making for a performance filled with dramatic tension and explosive pay-off. There is not a bad performance in the cast. There isn’t even a mediocre performance. From top to bottom, everyone in this cast explodes onto the stage and never stops telling the story of a barrio filled with dreamers who want something more than what life has given them so far.

When they discover someone has won $96,000 from a lottery ticket at Usnavi’s bodego, everyone reveals their dreams and what they would do with money like that. The eve of the Independence Day holiday, things heat up both literally and figuratively until the heat and humidity cause a city-side black-out.

Stamm leads his actors in hitting every emotional note, working in unison to tell the story of these very realistic people who are grappling with the questions of who we are, where we belong and how we make a future when everything seems stacked against us.

Stamm and Jay Gamboa share choreography duties and it is quickly apparent why they needed a chiropractor to co-sponsor this show and treat their actors. The dance moves border on acrobatic, pulling from the tradition of breakdancing and hip hop to paint the barrio’s culture and ensure the show’s energy is constantly simmering, always threatening to boil over.

Tom Vendafreddo leads a pit orchestra filled with strings, percussion and brass, capturing the sound and washing the audience with music while constantly providing support to the singers on stage.

Jeremy Barnett’s set evoked the musical’s original set and gave a realistic look to the Washington Heights neighborhood while providing room for the large cast that was constantly coming and going on the stage.

In the Heights at Mason Street Warehouse pays attention to every detail while making sure the overall performance is one that truthfully captures the soul of this musical. The performance exceeds in many ways the touring production that came through Michigan years ago. It is an exciting show that appeals to both the head and the heart.