Award-winning musical celebrates Latino culture

Cary Ginell reviews In the Heights at HSAC

(photo courtesy Barbara Mazeika)

Before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” made its Broadway debut in 2008, Latino life in New York City was most famously represented by the Sharks, the street thugs in “West Side Story.”

Miranda’s musical, however, focused on a much broader swath of the Latino experience, spotlighting the vibrant community in the city’s Washington Heights neighborhood, a place where salsa music percolates from every window and small businesses teeter on the brink of insolvency. Still, its residents are filled with joy and love of family, as they “live on patience and faith” while dreaming of a better future.

High Street Arts Center’s production of “In the Heights,” which opened April 8 and runs until May 8, brings to life Miranda’s groundbreaking show, which introduced rap to Broadway and won four Tony Awards, including best musical.

Lack of money serves as the show’s antagonist, preventing its characters from achieving their dreams. Central figure Usnavi can’t make enough money selling snacks and drinks in his small bodega; beauty salon owner Daniela’s business is failing and she is contemplating moving it to the Bronx; college student Nina has lost her scholarship due to poor grades, the result of having to work instead of study; and Nina’s father, taxi dispatcher Rosario, is considering selling his business to help her return to school. Even the unnamed Piragua Guy feels the competitive pressure on his pushcart business from his rival, Mister Softee.

When a blackout occurs during a hot summer night, things come to a boil, and the main characters are forced to make hard decisions about their personal and business lives.

Andrew Nuñez is excellent as Usnavi, the congenial grocery store owner who is in love with salon worker Vanessa, vivaciously played by Melina Ortega, whose strong suit as a fiery and sensuous dancer is on full display.

Isabella Phillips gives a sensitive performance as Nina, whose relationship with part-time dispatcher Benny (the versatile Ezra Eells) provides the show with its most romantically emotional moments.

Eells’ forte has been athletic comedy roles, but his abilities have broadened in recent shows into leading man territory, and he gives a convincing and charismatic performance. Of course, Eells inserted one of his patented one-handed flips as well as a bit of Michael Jackson-style moonwalking.

The two romantic couples are backed by a talented ensemble cast. Eric Umali is especially good as Kevin Rosario, Nina’s father, who is willing to sacrifice all for his daughter’s future. Melissa Higashi plays Kevin’s sensible, strong-willed wife Camila, while Trina Coleron, in her first performance at High Street, is impressive as the barrio’s beloved matriarchal figure, Abuela Claudia.

Nicholas Davila provides a quirky physicality to his role as Usnavi’s good-natured but ne’erdo well cousin Sonny. Maya Landry is also excellent in the traditionally male role of Graffiti Pete.

Of special note is Danielle Orjala as Daniela, the gossipy owner of the beauty salon where Vanessa works. Along with her slightly dim assistant Carla (well played by Jennifer Rico), Orjala steals the show whenever she appears on stage, boasting a strong singing voice and a spicy sassiness, especially on the musical’s highwater mark, the celebratory “Carnaval del Barrio.”

High Street’s production is produced by Kathee Boyer and Ken Rayzor with direction by John Tedrick, who was assisted by his daughter, McKenna. Tedrick helped Scott Armstrong create the evocative, double-decker set design to represent the crowded barrio. The production features often-exhilarating choreography by Julie Hackett and Abel Alderete (the latter also exhibiting his own dancing prowess as the Piragua Guy) along with Patrick Duffy’s exquisite lighting.

If the production has any downside it’s the occasionally offpitch vocal, which only slightly detracts from the show’s overall excellence. “In the Heights” remains an irresistibly exuberant celebration of Latino culture and is a must-see theater experience.

The musical runs through May 8 at 45 E. High St., Moorpark. Shows for the April 15 and 16 weekend are canceled. Go to for ticket sales and performance updates.