Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

In the Heights

Musical Theatre Southwest
Review by Rob Spiegel

Also see Mark's review of The Rocky Horror Show

The Cast
Photo by Jason Ponic
The musical Hamilton skyrocketed Lin-Manuel Miranda into the stratosphere of musical fame and success, making him the Broadway music and lyricist of his generation. He starred in the title role of the musical during its first 18 months. This pattern of writing the music and lyrics, creating the concept, and performing the lead role began ten years earlier with In the Heights, a story of life in the Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City.

While the musical didn't experience the universal adoration of Hamilton, its success was certainly strong enough to put Miranda on the Broadway map. In the Heights won four 2008 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The cast recording also nabbed a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.

Miranda wrote the earliest draft of In the Heights in 1999, while in his sophomore year of college. The show was accepted by Wesleyan University's student theater company, Second Stage. He continued to work on it, adding freestyle rap and salsa numbers. With a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, the show had a 2005 tryout in Waterford, Connecticut, then a 2007 Off-Broadway run, before opening on Broadway in March 2008. It was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards.

Miranda played the role of Usnavi del la Vega through the Broadway production. While Usnavi narrates and leads the cast, In the Heights is very much an ensemble piece the follows three days in the lives of 15 characters, who are all struggling in the barrio. Nina (Adrianne Valdez) has just returned home from Stanford University where she dropped out after being overwhelmed by the intensity and expense of college. While home she falls for one of her father's non-Hispanic employees, Benny Paul Ashby), much to the chagrin of her father. Usnavi (Martín Chávez-Borjas) owns a beat-up bodega and dreams of moving to the Dominican Republic. His girlfriend Venessa (Mala Maldonado-Plevin) lives with her alcoholic mother, works at the beauty salon next to Usnavi's store, and dreams of leaving the barrio for a downtown apartment.

Abuela (Deborah "Debi" Flores) is a grandmother-to-all neighborhood figure who is struggling with poor health. Nina's parents, Kevin (Ron Gallegos) and Camila (Leandra Barreras), run a taxi company that's past its prime. They're crushed by their daughter's lies about her defeat at Stanford. Also present are the colorful salon workers and neighborhood hangers-out, each with individual issues and a striking personality. All this together provides a lively scene of barrio life. Miranda brings his versatile rap into the story via the character Usnavi.

In the Heights is an excellent musical, and Musical Theatre Southwest delivers a caring and lively production co-directed by Gigi Bella Guajardo and Jonathan Ragsdale. While all of the roles are important, it's critical to get Usnavi right. There are so many things that could go wrong with this rapping central character who is almost an emcee for the barrio drama. Chávez-Borjas is outstanding in the role, handling the rap, the singing, the dreams, and the crushing disappointments of Usnavi. All of the characters' acting, singing, and dancing (Ragsdale is choreographer and Juan Hernandez musical director) are wonderful in this energetic and powerful production.

The barrio setting by set designer and builder Joel Paul McKenzie (he also handled the lighting design) is excellent. You can almost smell grease stains in the street (which also doubles as a disco). Kudos to the production crew, including Shannon Scheffler (costume designer), Katy Jacome (assistant costume designer), and Alissa Hall (stage manager). Other production workers include Katie Gallegos (properties design), Mala Maldonado-Plevin (assoc. choreographer), Evie Long (hair design), Angela Flores (make-up artist), and Alec Semeraro (sound engineer).

Musical Theatre Southwest has delivered some impressive productions in the past couple of years, including, most recently, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Bonnie and Clyde. In the Heights is yet another proud feather in the theatre group's colorful hat.

In the Heights, through July 1, 2018, at the Musical Theatre Southwest Black Box theatre, 6320 Domingo Rd. NE, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm. General admission is $22. For seniors, students, and ATG members, admission is $20. For reservations, call 505-265-9119 or purchase online at