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Review by Vince Mediaa

The Margret Lesher stage at CenterRep has been transformed into Washington Heights, a Barrio and Bodega for families living up town New York. Pulitzer Prize and Tony honored Musical IN THE HEIGHTS is now on stage at CenterREP in Walnut Creek through June 24th. “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the music and lyrics based on the book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. The highly touted, two-act show was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won four, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. It also earned a Grammy nod for Best Musical Show Album in 2008, followed by the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

DREAMers, and DACA are some of the stories and characters IN THE HEIGHTS resonate in people whether they come from immigrant backgrounds, or intergenerational relationships that play in familial relationships and community. This is the 11th time I have seen ITH locally. The wonderful street party, the strong story, is always marvelous to see a few times. My readers have read more reviews of ITH than they probably need to. I will only write about the actors and creative team. I won’t mention much about this story. But I can confirm this is the second ITH I have seen since the shut down.

Director Nicholas Avila says he is endeared to Miranda’s story and he is thrilled to be a part of the creative team for IN THE HEIGHTS, a story that holds a special place for anyone who has ever searched to “find home”. Avila says “It’s fascinating when a play achieves iconic status. This production is a remarkable opportunity to illuminate the interconnected tales of a community that is beautifully and haphazardly intertwined.” Lin Manuel-Miranda is the child of immigrants, and represents the best of what is possible when we dare to dream in the face of adversity. Having grown up in the Bay Area, Nicholas is incredibly grateful to Center REP and the Lesher Center for the Arts for the opportunity to tell this story so close to home”.

Exceptionally staged by director Avila who recruited the standout cast of local actors that impressively tell this story. He stages this family musical with love and care and “Carnaval del Barrio” makes you want to samba with the cast. Choreography by the spellbinding Sara Templetor is sizzling, she includes swift high energy dance numbers especially highlighted in “96,000” and “When You’re Home” where the insightful and sexy salsa dancing is infectious and features the ensemble players: the full throttle; Kevin Gruwell, Dan Paul Andres, Jordan Covington, Adora Nzewi, John Hector Diaz and Leilani Ford, The company brings their own energy to the classic dance numbers. Music director, Nicolas Perez, has some amazing voices on stage that mix well with conductor Kenji Harada eleven member pit band. The live percussion keeps this Washington Heights charming, danceable and still powerful along with the polished POC company.

USNAVI is played by the expressive Michel Alejandro Castillo, he opens the story with the banner number “In The Heights” proving his skilled rap talents and introducing the first rate company. The bodega he runs is just as colorful as his performance. Castillo later sings “96,000” with the cast and proves his compelling voice. Castillo brings his best rap skills and splendid voice to “It Won’t Be Long Now” alongside the flawless Laura Lebron as Vanessa, and the always enthusiastic Jacob Henrie-Naffa as Sonny.

NINA ROSARIO is superbly played by the thrilling Cristina Hernandez, who makes her Center Rep debut. I have seen Hernadez play Nina in other ITH companies including City Lights, and just a month ago at the Berkeley Playhouse’ excellent production. She sings the sweet song “Breathe”, her voice is graceful as she shares the story of her first year in college. Her voice is soulful and clear in contrast to the hip-hop rap numbers that dominate the two and half hour story. Hernandez is an established Bay Area actor who shines in all her songs including her solo “Everything I know”.

In the role of the heart of Washington Heights ABUELA CLAUDIA, is played by the terrific Michelle Navarrete. She lovingly plays the matriarch of the neighborhood. She is convincing as the older woman who is Usnavi's surrogate abuela who raised him. Navarrete’s performance of “Paciencia y Fe” is moving. It brings one of the themes emphasizing the family relationship between Claudia and Usnavi. The theme is touching and believable, while later, in the second act Navarrete sings “Hundreds of Stories” with spirit and heart alongside Castillo.

BENNY is played by the polished, hip Dave J Abrams who sings “Benny’s Dispatch” with Hernandez and their onstage timing is ideal. Abrams, a true professional, is enthusiastic in his dance skills and proves his infectious singing voice in “When You’re Home” alongside Hernandez. Both Hernandez and Abrams are featured in the second act opening number love song “Sunrise” and show off their passionate voices.

NINA’S PARENTS are played by foolproof Noel Anthony as Kevin, and the impressive Natalie Amaya as Camila who are pros and handle their dramatic parts with ease. Anthony sings a solo “Inutli”; his voice is splendid as a hurt father. Amaya as Camila has a solid voice in the emotional song “Enough” and commands the stage in “Siempre” with the company. Both Anthony and Amaya bring a celebration of pride, diversity and family to this story.

SONNY is played by the explosive Jacob Henrie-Naffaa who is also reprising this role after killing it in the Berkeley Playhouse company. He has wonderful comedic timing as Usnavi's cousin. Naffaa is featured in the song “It Won’t Be Long Now” and “96,000” with the hip excellent Castillo and the gifted Laura Bebron as Vanessa. Naffaa has a long history as a Bay Area actor. Naffaa steals the show when he is on stage and his perfect swagger with Castillo is ideal and kept the Walnut Creek audiences smiling.

VANESSA is played by the wonderful Laura Bebron. She soars in her duet with Castillo, the delightful song “Champagne”. The two show some Heights magic on stage. Lebron is also an expert dancer who proves her talent in “96,000” and “Club” with the company and shows class with the crowd pleasing hip hop dance. Highlighted by the accomplished Dane Paul Andres urban street hip hop, spray artist GRAFFITI PETE who opens the barrio at the top of the show making his mark. Tony Wooldridge alternates in the role.

Salon owner and local gossip diva, DANIELLA is played by the flawless Ashley Cowl. Her delivery, timing, body language and strong Latina smarts are perfect. She is matched with the wonderful Deanalis Arocho Resto who plays the ditzy shop assistant, CARLA. Danielle Mendoza as YOLANDA completes the trio who works at the salon. The three including Hernandez sing the hit song “No Me Diga”. Miranda features strong women roles with the swagger and energy to create these three wonderful characters and stories. PIRAGUA GUY is played by the impressive Alex Alvarez who has a dazzling tenor voice that rings across the Margaret Lesher theatre as he performs “Piragua”. His wonderful voice charms the audience with his wagon of sweet ice drinks.

The eye-catching life size barrio set created by Leah Ramillano includes a bodega full of groceries and drinks. The porch to Abuela’s home is center stage. The set features an upper level for Nina and Benny to escape too. Lighting designers Wen-Ling Liao and Spenser Matubang created thrilling fireworks effects with the help of Lyle Barrere's rich sound design. The ice cart featured in “Piragua” is fully working and designed by Prop Alyssa Tryon. Costume Designers Courtney Flores-Kerrigan and Rebecca Rodgers kept the cast very colorful with a mix of millennial look, and the slick bright dresses and heels on some of the women. Sonny and Usnavi’s colorful shirts matched the mood of the show including the warm mix for Claudia. In house stage managers Jeff Collister and Alicia Lerner moved the busy cast in and out of the Barrio with ease and kept the black out scene safe for the drama on stage.

This production is a colorful energetic version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s marvelous work. IN THE HEIGHTS themes are human connections, the power of neighborhoods, universal hopes and dreams that make for bold statements. It proves a place that becomes home and how a culture’s strength are positive ways to understand and live the American Dream. This production is about sold out but weeknight seats are easy to score. Next up at CenterRep is the Musical CROWNS - opens September 9th. But in the meantime, start your summer theatre season “Paciencia y Fe” as this IN THE HEIGHTS is a must see.



Music by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes

Directed by Nichola V. Avila

Musical Direction by Nicolas Perez

Choreographer Sara Templeton

Artistic Director

Markus Potter

Must Close June 24th, 2023

Running time 2.5 hours with one intermission

Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek

For tickets ($45-$70) or more information, the public may visit or call the box office at (925) 943-7469 (open Wed-Sun, 12:00-6:00pm).


Photos by Kevin Berne


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