Dancap presents the Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.
In the Heights is the story of the colourful Latino-American community of Washington Heights in uppermost tip of Manhattan. Set in present day, the neighborhood is experiencing rapid gentrification and change.
The show was conceived and written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical but despite the accolade I admit I wasn’t particularly excited going in to the show.
The touring production Dancap has brought to Toronto is the Second National tour and is what’s known as a “non-Equity” tour; i.e. it is cast with less experienced actors who are not members of the Actors’ Equity union that most Broadway actors belong to. I’ve seen some pretty dismal, cut-rate, non-Equity tours in the past.
Typically, older Broadway shows will be re-produced with a non-Equity cast after the show has already toured the major markets in North America. Non-Equity tours mostly play one or two-night runs in little college towns so it’s not uncommon for them to be scaled down, compromised versions of the original Broadway productions.
My friend and theatregoing companion for the night Amanda is a professional actress and card-carrying Equity member and was surprised that Dancap would choose to present so many non-Equity productions in its new season.
My enthusiasm for the show was further diminished when it was announced right before curtain that the lead role of Usnavi would be performed by the understudy, Jeffrey Nuñez.
While the show did start off a little slow for me I eventually warmed to it and much to my surprise I ended up enjoying it.
The show opens with a rap number by Usnavi, the local bodega owner in which he introduces us to the residents of the barrio.
Nina (Virginia Cavaliere) is the first person from her neighborhood to attend university. She has just returned home from Stanford but has to tell her parents that she dropped out after her first semester. Nina also falls in love with Benny (Kyle Carter), a non-Spanish-speaking African-American youth who works at her father’s taxi dispatch company.
Vanessa (Presilah Nuñez), Usnavi’s love interest, works at the local salon but has her eyes set on a downtown apartment. Sonny (Robert Ramirez), Usnavi’s feisty younger cousin, helps run the Bodega and Abuela Claudia (Christina Aranda) is the elder matriarch and and acts as a spiritual grandmother of the barrio.
Though the show is culturally-specific to the Latin-American community, as the child of immigrant parents, I found it relatable. The show explores themes like the struggle for immigrants to make it in America, parents’ expectations for their children and the clash of values between traditional parents and American-raised kids. It really captures the immigrant experience in the 21st century.
As for the cast being non-Equity, the fact that they’re younger and a bit less experienced doesn’t detract from this particular show much as it might others. The cast’s youth actually lends authenticity to the characters.
Some of the cast’s greenness does sometimes seep through in the spoken dialogue portions of the show and cast members sometimes felt a little stiff and unnatural in the more tense dramatic scenes.
This ensemble’s strength is definitely in the musical song-and-dance numbers and, for the most part, the performances are pretty solid. In fact, Amanda told me afterward that she wouldn’t have guessed that it was a non-Equity production had I not told her beforehand. Also, my initial misgivings about having an understudy in the lead role of Usnavi were ultimately unfounded; Jeffrey Nuñez plays the role with a winsome charm.
I really enjoyed the show’s Latin and hip hop-infused score and found myself swaying in my seat during the big group numbers. Usnavi narrates the story in rap and I’m particularly impressed with how rap is woven into the score in a way that feels completely organic and unforced. It blends perfectly with the rest of the score and really works as a storytelling device.
I also liked how urban dance elements were integrated into the choreography and musical staging, giving the show a great flow and dynamic feel.
In the end, I was won over by the show. The material shines through in this production. I enjoyed the music, I found characters relatable and thought the story was timely and relevant.
In a year when so much of the commercial theatre being presented in this town consists of derivative “based-on-the-movie” shows, I can’t help but root for an original musical with this much heart and rhythm.
- In the Heights is playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge Street) through February 19, 2012
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30pm, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday at 2pm
- Tickets $51 to $165
- Tickets are available by phone 416.644.3665 , in person at the box office or visit www.dancaptickets.com
- Cast of In the Heights, Photo by John Daughtry