'In the Heights' Fills a Small Stage With Big Stories at Custom Made Theatre

Ensemble cast celebrate "Carnaval del Barrio" in In the Heights at Custom Made Theatre. (Jay Yamada)

With Hamilton fever still in the air, Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco is in the right place at the right time with a charming, black-box rendition of Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Broadway musical. Set in New York’s Washington Heights, In the Heights touches on the dreams and dramas playing out “north of 96th Street” over the course of a three-day weekend. With a thoroughly working-class, immigrant-led storyline, the action revolves primarily around the small businesses in the neighborhood, like the corner bodega, the taxi dispatch, and the hair salon.

First conceived while Miranda was a sophomore at Wesleyan University, In the Heights brings a freestyle-salsa-and-meringue-infused slice of life to the stage. Inspired in part by Fiddler on the Roof, Miranda wrote his musical as part homage to the stories that make up his own Hispanic-American experience growing up in Inwood. It's not the life-or-death dramatics of the Shakespeare-inspired West Side Story, but something infinitely sweeter and lighter—just like the café con leche that Usnavi serves at his corner store. Usnavi (played by the extremely likable Julio Chavez) serves as the story’s main narrator and a focal point for much of the action, anchoring the production just as his “dime-a-dozen mom-and-pop stop-and-shop” anchors the neighborhood.

ensemble photo of 'In the Heights' cast at Custom Made Theatre
Usnavi (center, played by Julio Chavez) runs the neighborhood bodega on his corner of Washington Heights. (Jay Yamada)

As friends and neighbors trickle in for their morning coffees and lottery tickets, we get a quick download of everyone’s personal business. The Rosarios’ treasured daughter Nina is flying home from her first year at Stanford, the Salon ladies are gossiping a blue streak, and Benny is full of dreams. Usnavi’s love interest, the neighborhood ingénue Vanessa (a crackling Nora Fernandez Doane), is trying her damnedest to get out of “the barrio” for good. Usnavi has his own dream: to return someday to the Dominican Republic where he was born. Their connecting thread is that everyone is broke, thanks to the encroaching (and all-too familiar) effects of gentrification.

As with many ensemble pieces, everyone gets the opportunity to shine at certain moments. The chemistry between young lovers Nina (Carla Gallardo) and Benny (Dedrick Weathersby) comes alive as they canoodle on his fire escape in “Sunrise.” Abuela Claudia (Michelle Navarrete) reveals her inner strength as she details a life of hardship in the stirring “Paciencia y Fe.” Sergio Lobito as Kevin reflects poignantly on the emasculating effects of poverty in “Inútil.” And as the spitfire salonista-with-a-heart-of-gold, Daniela (Mia Romero) commands the stage as she advocates for a “Carnaval Del Barrio.” Even the nameless shaved-ice vendor “Piragua Guy” (the mellifluous Ernie Tovar) gets to solo, highlighting the importance of every small part in a larger community.

Michelle Navarrete as Abuela Claudia
Michelle Navarrete as Abuela Claudia in 'In the Heights' at Custom Made Theatre. (Jay Yamada)

The production does have its limitations. With little stage space for the athletic choreography such a danceable score demands, director and choreographer Nikki Meñez frequently keeps the movimiento to a minimum, with many actors delivering their verses face forward, in a static pose. (Blessedly, a major scene set in a nightclub does reveal the superior dance skills of Doane.) The vagaries of sound mixing that plague many a small venue render some lyrics completely unintelligible. And with no (visible) monitors, there’s almost always a moment in the group numbers where someone strays off-key. Sometimes by a lot.

Nora Fernandez Doane as Vanessa on dancefloor
Nora Fernandez Doane as Vanessa shows off her dance skills in the nightclub scene of 'In the Heights' at Custom Made Theatre. (Jay Yamada)

These technical considerations aside, Custom Made Theatre should be lauded for their ongoing efforts to bring ambitious musicals to the stage. To see an ensemble twelve strong, performing Broadway material just a few feet away, can be an exhilarating experience, especially when each of Custom Made’s delightful cast fully embrace their characters, flaws and triumphs both. There’s not a moment in the two-and-a-half hour production (including intermission) that you don’t care about what’s happening to them: their money woes, their love lives, their business dealings. There aren’t many small companies with regular productions of such size and scope, and Custom Made hasn’t let the limitations of their venues dictate their choices, which is refreshing.

Mia Romero, Carla Gallardo, Elena Estér, and Nora Fernandez Doane in the salon in 'In the Heights' at Custom Made Theatre.

What makes In the Heights such a viable choice for revival isn’t just its obvious Hamilton tie-in. It's the way the musical centers the stories of everyday people who rarely get to be in the spotlight. No soapbox, no grand commentary, just a good-natured reminder that not all Americans speak English as a first language. Ultimately, In the Heights tells us that our American dreams of financial and emotional security have much more in common with each other than not—and with immigration the perennial political bugbear that it is, that's a reminder that cannot come often enough.

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'In the Heights' runs through Dec 15 at Custom Made Theatre. Details here.

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