By PAM HARBAUGH
The syncopated tap-tap of claves lure your attention to the darkened stage. A tight spotlight casts shadows on a silhouetted figure. He lifts a can of spray paint and and in a hip-hop whoosh, the musical begins. It’s “In the Heights,” and you know you are in for fresh, contemporary theater. Indeed, Cocoa Village Playhouse coaxes you gently to the edge of community theater tradition with its sizzling production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.”
As might be expected by the artist who created the ground breaking musical “Hamilton,” Mr. Miranda infuses this, his first musical, with rap, Latin music and gritty aesthetics all layered into a sentimental piece about growing up in a Washington Heights barrio.
The projected backdrop shows the George Washington Bridge. Along the sides are inner city businesses — a bodega, a beauty salon, a limousine service. In front is the sidewalk, so to speak, where the community gathers to share dreams, fall in love, give encouragement and nurture. Throughout, the steady beat of Latin music pulsates like a heart.
The story is set over three hot days culminating with the Fourth of July, a symbolic time for a community barely a generation removed from immigrants who left the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico to find a better life for their children. They are business owners, parents, gifted students, artists all who have their own stories.
Setting this in motion is the narrator, Usnavi, played with great warm affection by the talented David Morales. As the owner of the bodega, he is semi-stern with his employee, would lay down his life for his grandmother, Abuela Claudia, would happily turn his pockets inside out for his cousin, Nina, and nearly falls apart when beautiful Vanessa passes by. Mr. Morales brings a resonating likeability to Usnavi. He performs the rap music with clever “street” sensibility, a confident driving beat and such a huge, winning smile that you cannot help but fall under his spell.
Neydi Jiminez exudes charm as Vanessa, the young woman who wants to leave the barrio and move to Greenwich Village so she can live a life away from her toxic mother. Paula Ursu is impassioned in her role as Nina, the gifted student who lost her scholarship to Stanford because she had to work two jobs just to pay for the books she didn’t have time to read. Although she’s probably tired of hearing this, Ms. Ursu will make you think of Anna Kendrick, which is a pretty nice comparison.
Tyreek Greene is a handsome, heartfelt Benny, a young non-Hispanic man who falls for Nina. Nicole Ramos is a fun and lively Daniela, the beauty salon owner who is wise beyond her years. As Nina’s mother, Camilia Rosario, Gaye Solano has a fun turn in the song “Enough,” when she basically says “basta!” to her arguing husband and daughter. Beautiful voiced Alejandro Acevedo is a delight as the Piragua salesman.
Although he lives in New York City, Juan Drigo Ricafort made it to Cocoa Village Playhouse for the role of Graffiti Pete. And you have to keep an eye on this young man’s wonderful dancing talent. And Kimberly Jenkins knocks it out of the park as loving and lovable Abuela Claudia.
Directors Anastacia Hawkins Smith and choreographer Pamela Larson have taken this simple story and layered into it a big show that elicits yelps of delight and loud sobs during two especially poignant moments. So expect those lumps in your throat, people…as well as the inability to sit still in numbers like “Carnaval del Barrio.” There are so many good dancers in this show, but keep an eye out especially for professional dancer Edgar Serrano who shows us how it’s done.
Add to the entire talented cast the excellent pit orchestra led by J. Thomas Black, Jr., Ian Cook’s solid scenic and lighting design inspired by the original Broadway production, Daniel Hill’s evocative costume design and Sheryl Koby’s wonderful scenic painting.
Part of Cocoa Village Playhouse’s mission (either written or not) is to bring our community’s diverse voices to its stage. With “In the Heights,” CVP does just that. Now it’s your turn to support this by going to see this electrifying show and being thrilled by the terrific talent in it.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “In the Heights” runs through May 15 at the Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse, 300 Brevard Ave., Cocoa. Tickets are $16 to $24. Call 321-636-5050, visit CocoaVillagePlayhouse.com. or, click onto their ad on the right side of this page and show your appreciation for Cocoa Village Playhouse’s support of Brevard Culture.
MORE: To read a story about David Morales and to see a video teaser of the production, click here.