In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

"In the Heights" runs at the Milwaukee Rep through Oct. 28. (PHOTO: Michael Brosilow)

The Rep's "In the Heights" is an energetic, uplifting examination of community

"In the Heights" centers on a variety of characters living in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. There we meet Usnavi, a bodega owner who looks after the aging Cuban lady next door, pines for the gorgeous girl working in the local beauty salon and dreams of returning to his native Dominican Republic thanks to a winning lottery ticket.

Meanwhile, Usnavi's childhood friend Nina, has returned to the neighborhood from her first year at college with surprising news for her parents. How will said parents, who have been saving and sacrificing to make a better life for their daughter, take this news?

It's hard to talk about "In the Heights" without mentioning creator Lin-Manuel Miranda's other musical phenomenon, "Hamilton." After seeing it live in Chicago last summer, I remember being being overwhelmed upon leaving the theater. I was, in fact, barely able to speak for about 30 minutes after the final bow. It was so much to take in, too much to process – not only had this much-lauded production lived up to the hype, but because it exceeded it.

So I was obviously intrigued to see if Miranda's first Tony-award winning hit would be just as transformative. I purposefully went into this show without any knowledge of the plot or songs, and for the most part, this was a good strategy. My one minor complaint was that the orchestra, while excellent, sometimes overpowered the vocal performers, making it occasionally difficult for newbies like me to understand every lyric in a show where perfect enunciation is critical.

But despite this, "In the Heights" proves that not only had Lin-Manuel Miranda rightfully earned the reputation of musical genius before "Hamilton," but that, to no one's surprise, The Rep puts on a production as vibrant as what you'd find on The Great White Way.

Ryan Alvarado's Usnavi is instantly likeable and easy to root for. He along with the remarkable ensemble kick off the show on a high note with the rousing opening number "In the Heights." It's the ideal way to get to know the fiery, joy-filled people who make up this vibrant community.

As impressive as he is, Alvarado is not the only remarkable singer worth mentioning. The sweet Sophia Macías (Nina) and the dashing David Kaverman (Benny) have particularly rich, powerful voices. Their performances during "When You're Home" and the Act I finale "Blackout" were especially stirring.

When I saw "Hamilton" one year ago (okay, fine, I'll stop bragging about it), I was struck by how every aspect of the show flowed so seamlessly together. The Rep's presentation of "In the Heights" came together no differently. Every piece of the production beautifully enhances the other, so much so that it's hard to compliment one element by itself. While the songs on their own are excellent, they're even better when they are paired with William Carlos Angulo's intricate choreography. That choreography takes on a greater meaning when you place it in the world that Tim Mackabee creates with the imaginative yet realistic set designs.

At its core, "In the Heights" is about the importance of community and how we may (or may not) fit into it. Although some of us may not live in neighborhoods that resemble the Washington Heights depicted on stage, even in our great Brew City, our neighborhoods help define us. We know the streets of our city, we know who occupies what houses, we know where the best place is to grab a burger and an ice cold beer, and it's natural to take pride in that.

But this love and appreciation can sometimes be paired with frustration and listlessness, leading to questions of whether a given place is truly the best personal fit. This is certainly what several of the characters of "In the Heights" experience, as they value the world they've created for themselves in Washington Heights while simultaneously imagining a different life in a different place.

Although you're guaranteed two and a half hours of spirited music and a compelling story when you see The Rep's flawless production of "In the Heights," this show is, perhaps above all else, a celebration (or, in some cases, an examination) of who we are and where we come from.


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