Salsa, Sparks, and Song: TEATRO!’s ‘In the Heights’

In The Heights
Julia I. Biedry ‘17 dances with Maria Victoria Paredes ’20 and Nick D. Hornedo ‘19 in TEATRO!’s In the Heights.
Lights up on Washington Heights—and at the Oberon, where Harvard College TEATRO!, a student Latino theater organization, staged a stunning production of “In the Heights,” on April 13 and 14. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original, Latin-infused musical tells the story of Usnavi de la Vega (Nick Hornedo ’19), the owner of a bodega who sells a winning lottery ticket. Directed by Danny L. Rodriguez ’18, “In the Heights” soared to new levels of theatrical achievement, showcasing student excellence in acting and directing, while also giving voice to the Latino immigrant experience.

Lighting and design set the scene, blurring the lines between stage and audience. In one energetic dance number, actors salsa-danced through the aisles and around tables. Characters looked over the audience from the balcony, but the plot also unfolded conventionally onstage. Creative lighting decisions—intermittent bursts of light aimed at a disco ball to depict fireworks, for instance, as well as the use of cell phone cameras during a fabricated black-out—expanded the space of the Oberon, making a relatively small stage feel like an entire New York neighborhood. Other set decisions, namely the notable appearance of a beautiful mural, designed by Delfina Martinez-Pandiani ’17, also struck a chord.

Donning Usnavi’s signature red flat cap hat and short-sleeved button-down, Hornedo not only emulated Miranda’s iconic fast-talking wit, but breathed a special charm into the role that was uniquely his own. “Lights up on Washington Heights, up at the break of day,” he rapped at the beginning of the show. Hornedo’s Usnavi was mischievous, funny, and headstrong—a compelling leading man.

Just as impactful were Vanessa (Julia I. Biedry ’17) and Nina (Allison Toledo ’19). Both actresses wielded an effortless command over the stage that evoked an impressive theatrical professionalism. Both also demonstrated stunning vocal skills. As Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest who dreams of escaping the Barrio, Biedry deftly navigated a challenging range of complicated vocal material with finesse, versatility, and emotional resonance. Toledo, playing Nina Rosario, a disillusioned Stanford freshman returning home after losing her scholarship, delivered a gripping performance from “Breathe,” her anxious opening solo, to “Everything I Know,” a poignant tribute to her immigrant matriarch.

Toledo’s Nina displayed an enviable natural chemistry with Benny, played by Max W. Whittington-Cooper ’17, who showed an organic stage charisma and degree of comfort under the spotlight. Whittington-Cooper’s Benny was suave and confident, but could also be serious and romantic. Benny and Nina demonstrated palpable sparks, further fueling the show’s vitality. Amid occasionally somber material, Maria Victoria Paredes ’20 and Brandon Martinez ’20 offered much-appreciated comic relief as Daniela and Sonny, respectively.

Though the show’s material was entertaining and enjoyable, it was also an important story to tell in the context of TEATRO!’s mission: to celebrate a genuine view of the Latino experience. “In the Heights” is the story of a community just before gentrification sweeps through the bodegas, salons, and car rentals, turning them into the foundations for upscale retail stores and designer boutiques.

Most of all, it is the story of a neighborhood and the people who called it their home. “Who’s gonna notice when we’re gone?” Usnavi sings in the show’s finale. For the students behind TEATRO!’s “In the Heights,” it seems like that won’t be much of a problem.

—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at caroline.tsai@thecrimson.com.

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