Last night I had the best theatrical experience of my life. I saw In The Heights, performed by students of the Berklee Music School. In The Heights is a story about young men and women coming to terms with their role in the world, finding their future among their dreams. It tells the story of kids with more energy than experience, a tale which directly mimics the story of the musical’s creation. Lin-Manual Miranda (of Hamilton fame) created it while in college.
The story is therefore uniquely celebrated by the youthful energy of a college production. The actors and musicians aren’t feigning the uncertainty and excitement of the future, they feel it. This isn’t their thousandth production, their job. What can bring a bigger smile on your face than watching a whole stage of performers get to live their dream in front of an audience of 1000?
All of that would be true in a mediocre production. This was not that. I never got a chance to see In The Heights while it was on Broadway, but I have listened to the cast recording dozens of times. Some of the actors in this production could be transported to Broadway tomorrow and I, at least, wouldn’t think anything was amiss.
Zaid Tabani, who played Usnavi, is legitimate hip hop artist himself. And like Lin-Manual, that allowed him to deliver the (many) rapped lines of the show exactly as they were intended. He was there to connect with the audience, and that’s exactly what he did. Texas Hart (who has the best country-music-name I’ve ever heard) was dead on as Sonny. Janina Salorio who played Carla was perfect. I’m not convinced Nicolas Emden, who played the Piraguero, was not Javier Muñoz brought in as a ringer. Playing a Latin mother convincingly is not the easiest role for a college student; Gabriela Cabezas, who played Camila, was incredible.
Now I get really bold: Natasha Torres who played Nina was better than the Mandy Gonzalez who played the role on Broadway. Mandy had a refined, educated, bearing which never aligned with the characters roots in Washington Heights. Natasha had a vulnerability which made you wonder how she can possibly sing while her bottom lip quivered so much.
On Broadway the orchestra is generally hidden below the stage. Here they were arranged behind the (minimal) set. You could watch the conductor (Jacklyn Riha), the fantastic pianist (Seulah Noh) and portions of the horn section throughout the performance. And dear god they were incredible.
This is not an easy score. Start with very energetic unbroken Latin music for three hours. Add triggered sounds, four separate percussionists, and precise cues with action on the stage. Then cut all the stage lighting at the end of the First Act (the conductor wore glowing gloves). At one point the conductor had to remove her monitors so she could sync the orchestra to the beat being played on stage by the Piraguero. And it was PERFECT.
Zaid Tabani, who played Usnavi, ended the performance with an original song. If you’re anything like me, that sounds about as appetizing as a transatlantic flight on United. It was incredible. A dizzying spin of rap lyrics and live accompaniment which could be released on Def Jam tomorrow. The audience was on its feet, snapping on the downbeats and singing the chorus.
I’m sure a more critical eye could find faults, as with any amateur production. But theater is about having an experience, a unique connection the with actors and musicians. I have seen Hamilton on Broadway with the original cast from the second row. I have seen the Metropolitan Opera twice, the Bolshoi and the Royal Shakespeare company by live stream. This was the best theatrical experience of my life. The one which left me with the biggest grin on my face, and the most wonder in my heart.
I was sitting in the front row of the theater. The actors were at times feet away from me. I payed $12 for my ticket. If you live in Boston, and you’re not taking advantage of Berklee, you’re a fool.