I have to begin by saying that this is the kind of review I really don’t like to write.
For two reasons, probably not the ones you think.
The first is because the subject, South Bend Civic Theatre’s current show, “In The Heights,” which opened Friday evening in the Wilson Auditorium, is its best musical production to date.
The second is because, in spite of performances added to its scheduled run, as of this weekend all are completely sold out. So if you were holding back to see if your friends liked the show, you are too late for that to make any difference.
Difficult to say what makes an amateur production come together as solidly as this.
Obviously the foundation is the script and score. The former is by Quiara Alegria Hudes, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The show earned four Tony Awards in 2008 including Best Musical.
That does not, however, guarantee a successful production.
So begin with a director, Leah Isabel Tirado (who also plays the pivotal role of Abuela Claudia), an associate director Paul Mow and a choreographer, Jon Martinez, all of whom have extensive backgrounds in professional theater, and you have a great structure on which to build.
The “building blocks” they selected to inhabit the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights obviously are top quality. There is not a weak or off-putting voice among the principle players. Jorge Rivera-Herrans is Usnavi, bodega owner who dreams of opening a bar in his native Dominican Republic and Rachel Thomas is Vanessa, who hopes to have her own apartment in the West Village but whose alcoholic mother drinks up all she earns in the beauty shop owned by Daniela (Andrea Deleon) who must move her shop due to increased rent.
Nina (Mimi Bell) has dropped out of Stanford and come home which upsets her parents Kevin (Jeffrey Villlorio Santos) and Camilla (Shay Northstine) who are determined to pay for her return to school no matter the cost. They disapprove of her romance with Benny (Samuel Jackson) who works for Kevin in his taxi service.
Around this core, all of whom strongly inhabit their roles vocally, physically and dramatically, are other relatives and friends who work and live in the Heights.
The show spans three days during which major changes occur, not the least of which is a $96,000 lottery ticket won by the neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia, impressively played and sung byTirado.
From the beginning of a swelteringly hot July 3 through the final realizations on July 5, this block in the Heights is in perpetual motion, blending hip-hop, salsa, soul and Hispanic rhythms that defy audience members to stay still, with ballads that go straight to the heart.
Whether explosive ensemble numbers like the Act 1 fireworks finale and the neighborhood carnival or the introspective solos and duets, the pacing (along with the excellent voices) keeps everyone in tune with the characters.
Principle or ensemble, the 29 company members mark the highs and lows of life in a Latino community with contagious reality.
Kyle Chamberlin’s set design instantly creates the atmosphere of the block, including a view of the bridge, and Matt Dolphy Clark’s lighting design (with fireworks) enhances the feeling of hot summer, day and night.
Roy Bronkema is music director/pianist and Joshua Goines is orchestra conductor/pianist. With six instrumentalists, they happily bridge the gap of playing on both sides of the “street..
Vocally and instrumentally, this production is enhanced by the theater’s new sound system.
“In The Heights,” which most know was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s one before ”Hamilton,” celebrates the uniqueness of the individual and the solidarity of the community in a life-affirming package applicable to everyone everywhere!
IN THE HEIGHTS plays in the South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Auditorium through March 25. All performances are sold out, To add your name to the extensive waiting list, call (574) 234-1112 weekdays.