It might be a while before you see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash hit “Hamilton” in Kalamazoo. But right now theatre-goers can see Miranda’s first Tony award winning musical, “In the Heights” at the Festival Playhouse of Kalamazoo College. It runs May 11th through May 14th.
It’s a street carnival of a play set in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. It places American immigrants from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic front and center as lead characters. More importantly, “In the Heights” celebrates the diversity of U.S. city neighborhoods and the gritty resilience of those who live there.
Kalamazoo College brings a committed 22 member student ensemble to tackle this challenging musical. The show seamlessly moves between English and Spanish dialogue and lyrics. The music has hip hop, salsa, and a touch of soul to create a contemporary urban atmosphere.
Despite a strong opening narrative by resourceful bodega owner Usnavi, energetically played by Alejandro Antonio Jaramillo, the production encountered some Act I difficulties. At Wednesday evening’s final dress rehearsal, vocals for several musical numbers were delivered off key, some scenes lacked crispness, and the blocking lacked clarity.
Fortunately, several performers helped the show achieve lift off. Bryan Lara as Kevin, owner of a car and limousine service, provided a vivid outline of what’s at stake for his family with an engaging rendition of the song “Useless”.
Karishma Singh as the talkative Daniela delivered an Act I high point with “No Me Diga”. Chock full of beauty shop gossip, this number is cleanly choreographed by Heather Mitchell and wonderfully supported by Stephany Perez, Ranya Perez, and Natalie Vazquez.
Karishma Singh has the vocal power to sell a song and proved it again in Act II leading the cast in a raucous and celebratory “Carnaval Del Barrio." In this number the community comes together to recover from the ravages of looting after a power blackout.
Other standouts included Yaneli Soriano as Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood matriarch. Her moving songs pay tribute to her heritage and the role of patience and faith in her life.
The real star of this show is the street wise poetry of Lin-Manuel Miranda. In lyric, dialogue, or setting, Miranda has the ability to lift the seemingly inconsequential for consideration. He praises the beauty of morning light on a fire escape, shows us the rainbow in a street vendor’s shave ice syrup, and reveals the ingenuity of a pesky graffiti artist. All of these provide a glimpse in Miranda’s world.