A tale of resilience spun by a versatile ensemble cast, Berkeley Playhouse’s production of “In the Heights” reaches heartfelt altitudes. While Lin Manuel Miranda’s original production of “In the Heights” is set in the present day, Director Mel Martinez writes that she specifically chose 2016 as the setting for the powerful musical, staging the characters’ dreams and hopes against a year rife in bigotry before a country-shaking presidential election. Dedicated to “all of the abuelitas in our lives,” Berkeley Playhouse’s production of “In the Heights” is a living portrait of a family bound together, not always by blood, but certainly by a vibrant neighborhood.
Berkeley Playhouse’s small stage transforms into a breathing snapshot of a Washington Heights street that pulses with life. Skillful set design places towering balconies alongside three-dimensional stores, crafting an immersive environment in which actors dash in and out of corner stores and windows. The street was rarely empty — leading actors bring to life the spirited landscape of Washington Heights in company with the ensemble cast. Bright tube tops and skinny jeans accompany rhythmic hip-hop and salsa choreography, instantly reminiscent of the 2010s’ blend of screaming patterns and neon colors.
“In the Heights” may revolve around Usnavi’s (Carlos Diego Mendoza) quest for love and financial freedom, but Anita Viramontes as Abuela Claudia quietly burns bright as the center of gravity for both the production and the growing neighborhood. In one particularly poignant moment, the beloved neighborhood matriarch is left alone on stage, sinking the theater into an eerie silence before bursting into “Paciencia y Fe” and transporting the playhouse to her beginnings in Washington Heights. While unaccompanied by the street’s background dancers, Viramontes never falters in capturing decades of immigrant perseverance in New York, sweetly singing a warm serenade to the neighborhood’s vibrant history.
Whether in the center of the action or bumbling with a cash register in the background, Usnavi’s goofy younger cousin Sonny (Jacob Henrie-Naffaa) sparks laughs whenever on stage. Flailing limbs and exaggerated swagger swing in full tune as Henrie-Naffaa utilizes expert physical comedy to embody the spirited neighborhood comic. Adding an extra touch of hilarity, Henrie-Naffaa never fails to supply nuanced moments that bring the show to life. When paired with Mendoza as Usnavi, the two fill the theater with raucous banter and familial pestering which never fails to spark contagious laughter.
Poignant and tender, Cristina Hernandez evokes sharp ambition fueled by youthful longing in her role as Nina Rosario — a burdened college student returning home. Nina’s story is one of the most compelling of the show: Unable to afford college on her own, the young girl must tell her family she dropped out. Hernandez’s solo number, “Respira,” swells to an anxious peak, as she sings of grit-filled ambition and the pitfalls of higher education: “Restless to climb, I got every scholarship, saved every dollar, the first to go to college, how do I tell them why, I’m coming back home?” Hernandez delivers a resolute and inspiring performance, bringing heart and drive to Rosario’s tale of resilience.
More than a background to its bustling occupants, the Heights are fueled by its resident’s many aspirations. Straining romances, found families and forbidden love are just a few of the plot points that intertwine throughout the show. During the pivotal nightclub scene, the stage falls to hopeful darkness, and the ensemble’s yearnings collide with a bang. Neon lights smoothly transition the street mural to a crisp dance floor. As desires and possibilities become muddled, the choreography falls into glorious disorder — modern dance collides with salsa and elaborate lifts while Lin Manuel Miranda’s signature breakneck lyrics flourish.
As the show’s signature Latin sound bursts behind the joyful final bow, the cast members on stage clap their hands and beckon for the audience to join in on the fun. The crowd’s subsequent cheers emphasize that Berkeley Playhouse’s production of “In the Heights” taps into a joy unique to community theater, making for a fitting homage to its heart-filled neighborhood subject.