Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony award-winning musical In the Heights gets a lavish and energetic production by the Cabrillo Music Theatre in its regional premiere at the Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks. The musical, set in the barrios of uptown Manhattan, gives voice to a portion of the immigrant experience of America not often heard — the mostly Dominican American population of Washington Heights.
The show’s energy, largely driven by narrator and protagonist Usnavi de la Vega (Lano Medina), comes from its mixture of Latin and urban rhythms both new and old. Medina leads the company in sweeping and bright musical numbers, blending the rap, hip-hop, Latin dance music and Broadway orchestrations that make up the musical’s score. He quickly establishes himself as the evening’s hero. A rousing and eye-opening number underscores the desire for a better life than the one offered by the tenements, roll-up security screens and fire escapes that fill the set. As day turns to night and day again during the July 4 holiday, the barrio will be transformed and dreams reshaped.
Medina is a likable Usnavi. He plays an orphan longing for a return to his homeland, struggling with the reality of his urban existence and caring for the woman he calls “Abuela” (Tami Dahbura as Abuela Claudia). As he awkwardly pursues Vanessa (an eager Rachae Thomas), the barrio is thrust into chaos by the return of Nina Rosario (Ayme Olivo) from Stanford, impending financial disaster for Nina’s parents, Kevin and Camilla (dutifully played by Benjamin Perez and Celina Clarich Polanco, respectively), the relocation of the neighborhood salon, and a blackout that brings with it violence and threat of rampage.
Morgan Marcell’s tight, fast-paced direction of this excellent cast gives us a bustling and busy streetscape, even if her recreation of Andy Blankenbuehler’s award-winning choreography sometimes exceeds the capabilities of her dancers. The Piragua Guy (Jonathan Arana in a delightful turn) laments his attempts to sell his traditional shaved ice while Mister Softee plunders his customer base. Benny (an earnest and believable Frank Authello Andrus Jr.), the Rosarios’ longtime loyal employee, suddenly struggles with his affection for Nina and a changing work landscape. The local graffiti artist (José-Luis Lopez as an imposing but lovable Graffiti Pete) is both the bane of the neighborhood and an integral part of it.
But it is Robert Ramirez’s performance as Sonny that steals this show. From his first entrance as Usnavi’s seemingly lazy and eternally immature cousin, Ramirez infuses Sonny with a youthful innocence and easygoing silliness that belies his character’s loyal heart and selfless nature. Sonny’s redemption is the redemption of the entire neighborhood, a recommitment to himself and his extended family. Even as he searches for his loved ones during the pivotal blackout and the cast echoes the refrain “We are powerless,” Ramirez’s Sonny nearly bursts with the youth and idealism needed to hold together a changing landscape and the changing dreams of the next generation of Dominican Americans in the Heights, where “It’s a hundred in the shade, but with patience and faith, we remain unafraid.”
In the Heights, through April 6. Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. For more information, call 800-745-3000 or visit www.cabrillomusictheatre.com.