A beautiful day in Little Dominican Republic

Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival presents Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights

4 minute read
On a realistic set of a street in Washington Heights, with a bridge behind, 21 cast members pose singing around the stage
Kudos for diverse talent: the cast of PSF’s ‘In the Heights.’ (Photo credit Lee A. Butz/Kristy McKeever.)

In time for Juneteenth, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival features In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical love letter to the culture and community of Washington Heights, with a book by Philly-born Pulitzer-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes.

In the Heights is a slice-of-life story following the day-to-day events of a close-knit New York community, including bodega owner Usnavi, his cousin Sonny, and Usnavi’s adopted grandmother. Meanwhile, Kevin Rosario owns a car service with his stalwart wife Camila, and their employee Benny has history with their daughter Nina, who’s home with troubling news from her first year at Stanford. Vanessa, a beauty-shop assistant who has caught Usnavi’s eye, and her friends Daniela and Carla, round out the ensemble, with the neighborhood characters Graffiti Pete and the shaved-ice man, Piragũero.

Well-connected choreography and cast

Smooth direction by Valeria Cossu sparkles with celebratory moments, and coalesces well with choreography by Michael Anthony Sylvester (and Latin assistant choreographer and dance captain Héctor Flores Jr.), especially with the occasional use of a stop-motion walking/dancing style. The dancing features delightfully subtle movements, from unexpected floor slides to sudden acrobatics to stylized lifts, in echoes of multiple Latin American dance styles—and so many ways to commit high-fives. Sylvester and Flores could have simplified the choreography during the Latin dance scene, but tossed in side undulations on top of turns, just because. Lighting designer Max Doolittle contributes nationalistic flashes of red and green.

The cast boasts a seamless cohesion, looking so comfortable with each other that you could easily believe they’re longtime friends and family—perhaps due in part to intimacy director Eli Lynn. I especially loved the numerous throwaway movements that happened when characters were out of the spotlight, including Sonny pretending to stumble through the grocery-store door, and Usnavi jumping onto Piragũero’s back. My favorite numbers showcasing cast unity, choreography, and stage picture include “96,000,” “The Club,” “Sunrise,” and “Carnaval del Barrio.”

Shout-outs to diverse talent

Ariana Valdes’s Daniela steals the show, from her initial gossipy entrance to her comedic beauty-shop timing. Graffiti Pete’s (Ralphie Rivera de Jesus) breakdancing moves, Solomon Parker III’s popping and locking as Benny, and ensemble member Yoaldri Messina’s samba all gave me wings. As Carla, Gabrielle Villarreal embodies every single line of LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl.” As Piragũero, Kevin Matthew Solis’s transitory solos are comedic, heartwarming, and rhythmic. Tauren Hagans, playing Camila, could have allowed the role of wife and mother to swallow her character, but she stands toe-to-toe with Danny Bolero as her husband, Kevin Rosario. Although Luis-Pablo Garcia's Sonny was an easy fan favorite, Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield’s Abuela has some damn pipes on her. Her background was revealed in the lovely “Pacienca y Fe,” with Afro-samba-inspired choreography alluding to 1940s New York.

Kudos for diverse talent in terms of body types and skin colors and background from within the Latin diaspora. The cast effortlessly flowed between English and Spanish without making non-speakers feel lost.

Lin-Manuel Miranda echoes

I’ve seen Hamilton three times (twice in Philly, once on Disney+) and Freestyle Love Supreme twice (once with Miranda himself). And yes, early hints of Miranda’s Hamilton genius and freestyle personae are all over the show. The narrator Usnavi (played here by Ryan Reyes) has Miranda’s same lowkey rapping cadence; Latin beats commingle with hip-hop, rap, and R&B; there are old-school musical callbacks to “Hold up, waitaminute,” while the male cheers and toasts of In the Heights echo Hamilton’s toasts to the groom.

Hamilton features Angelica and Eliza Schuyler as two strong female leads, but unfortunately, only the men of In the Heights get meatier roles. While Benny and Rosario deal with racism, classism, and culturalism, Nina (Daisy Marie Lopez) and Vanessa (Chelsea Zeno) are basically love interests who serve as catalysts for their male lovers or family members to take action. Hagans and Schofield are especially impressive for their ability to stand out in the respective roles of mother and grandmother.

Strife and joy in the neighborhood

When I was in high school at a community event, my mother and I sat beside a bilingual family speaking Spanish. My mother was increasingly convinced they were mocking her (they weren’t) and wanted them to know I spoke Spanish as well. Although I love seeing POC unity in theaters, I love that Miranda dared to pen intercultural difficulties in this context. But in his need to keep In the Heights lighthearted and neighborhood-focused, he rushes over hints of strife between Black and Brown residents with a cheery song urging reconciliation.

From West Side Story to Rent to Hamilton, most big stage shows have an event or main character that catalyzes the action. But here, despite our early meeting with Usnavi and Rosario, this neighborhood’s standard events (emergencies, death, moving) and its cast of characters are what anchor the show, for better or worse. As long as you allow the neighborhood joy to overwhelm you, you’re in for one hell of an awesome ride.

What, When, Where

In the Heights. Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegría Hudes; directed by Valeria Cossu. Through July 2, 2023, on the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival mainstage, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley. (610) 282-9455 or pashakespeare.org.


Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Call the box office to book wheelchair or companion seating, space for a service animal, a large-print program, or an assisted listening device. There will be an audio-described and open-captioned performance of In the Heights on Wednesday, June 28, at 7:30pm.

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