Tony favorite soars to new Heights during L.A. run

The Lakers T-shirt was just icing on the cake: The audience that had gathered to witness the Los Angeles premiere of the Tony Award-winning musical In The Heights had been won over long before the show’s creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda reappeared from backstage for a curtain call in a garment bearing the insignia of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Streetlight · Lin-Manuel Miranda returns to the role of Usnavi in the touring production of In The Heights, now at the Pantages Theatre. - Photo courtesy of Broadway/LA

His impeccable taste in post-performance attire notwithstanding, Miranda’s Los Angeles reception has been nothing short of a hero’s welcome. Celebrities including Wayne Brady, Wilmer Valderrama and Jai Rodriguez turned out to celebrate the show’s official Los Angeles opening Wednesday night, and — whether wisely or not — Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa risked further scrutiny by also attending the opening.

After the cast had taken its final bow, Villaraigosa emerged from the wings to present the cast with a framed city proclamation on behalf of all those who would be introduced to Miranda’s socially significant story for the first time by way of the production’s monthlong residency in Los Angeles. (Villaraigosa, who is presently the subject of intense media attention for his alleged acceptance of free tickets to concerts, award shows, sporting and cultural events, was quick to also give his appreciation for the revenue the show’s five-week run is expected to generate.)

Whether it’s found in Washington Heights or Boyle Heights, Villaraigosa remarked onstage, the immigrant experience is universal and worth documenting.

Miranda clearly agrees. He cites his first time seeing a performance of Rent as the moment he realized that theater could be used to document a whole range of experiences, not just the classic stories that have already been immortalized in the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon.

In The Heights centers on the lives of residents of a Latino community in Upper Manhattan called Washington Heights at a crucial time in the neighborhood’s existence, and Usnavi (Miranda) and his high-traffic bodega are situated right in the thick of it. From his enviable corner location — neighborhood gossip Daniela (Isabel Santiago), owner of the next-door salon, would kill to hear half of what he does — Usnavi is all too aware that no one in the hard-scrabble neighborhood is free from money troubles. The sensual Vanessa (Sabrina Sloan) yearns to pick up and leave in favor of an apartment Downtown, but with her mother drinking away the rent, she can’t even afford to live in Washington Heights; Kevin and Camila Rosario (Danny Bolero and Natalie Toro) struggle to finance their daughter Nina’s (Arielle Jacobs) Stanford education with their flailing taxi dispatch service;  and with more and more people turning to Mr. Softee instead of shaved ice vendors, even the Piragua Guy (David Baida) is feeling the pinch.

Word spreads quickly that Nina, youthful prodigy and the pride of the neighborhood, is back from college, but her unexpected news sends the community into a tailspin. A similarly unexpected windfall seems to be just the thing to stave off the urban decay that’s been eating away at the aging barrio, but Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora) appears to have other plans for the money, namely helping Usnavi reconnect with his Dominican heritage and return to the Caribbean island his parents called home.

In The Heights’ current engagement at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre represents only the latest chapter in the show’s history in the decade since it formally came into existence in April 2000, as a one-act student production at Miranda’s alma mater, Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Eight years, seven distinct incarnations and countless wholesale revisions later, Miranda’s much-workshopped brainchild was honored with three Tonys in 2008, including the top prize for best musical. Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography and Miranda’s music and lyrics were also recognized with wins in their respective categories.

The touring production that’s set up shop on the Pantages stage features precious few members of the original Broadway cast, with one important exception: Lin-Manuel Miranda is returning as Usnavi for the first time since handing off the leading role to Javier Muñoz in February 2009.

As Abuela Claudia, Elise Santora lacks the comedic timing of  Olga Merediz, who played the role on Broadway, but Santora’s incredible pipes bring a power to the numbers showcasing Abuela Claudia that is notably absent on the original Broadway cast recording. But it’s Arielle Jacobs as Nina who all but steals the show. She defines her character in terms of the staggering weight she must bear, having been saddled with the hopes of the entire neighborhood since childhood. And again, Jacobs’ vocal performance far outstrips her equivalent on the soundtrack.

Jacobs’ previous credits include originating the starring role of Gabriella in the world tour of Disney’s High School Musical. Curiously enough, this is only one of many points of intersection between In The Heights and High School Musical: Corbin Bleu is starring as Usnavi   in the current Broadway cast, and High School Musical director Kenny Ortega is slated to direct the upcoming film adaptation of the enormously successful musical.

Even discounting slight tweaks to the material for relevance — a rapped protest by Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett) in the song “96,000” has been updated to include the line “Arizona be hatin’” — Miranda’s music still resonates with audiences just as  much as it did when it opened in New York two years ago, and probably just as much as it did when he premiered it at Wesleyan in his college days.

The show’s poignancy lies in its ability to touch on broad themes like gentrification and urban decay in ways that are sufficiently nonspecific (In five years when this whole city’s rich folks and hipsters / Who’s gonna miss this raggedy little business?) so as to not alienate audiences not necessarily familiar with the actual setting. This is a far cry from decidedly less inclusive work like A Chorus Line, where insider-only references regularly serve as the punch lines to inside jokes to which only New Yorkers are privy.

For all the talk of the changes that have been ushered in by this landmark production, In The Heights is, at its heart, a classic Broadway musical.

Hip-hop score and spicy dance numbers aside, In The Heights offers a beautiful story of finding your place in the world. What’s more Broadway that that?