‘In The Heights’ brings sense of community to a gentrified San Francisco

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In the Custom Made Theatre on Sutter Street in San Francisco, the small space came to life Sunday night with the premiere of Custom Made Theatre Company’s production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.” The stage was transformed into a New York bodega with bags of Ruffles and Takis lining the shelves and posters advertising $14 Marlboros and the lottery posted on the brick walls upstage. The back even had an ad posted for Blu e-cigarettes, launching the play a decade forward into modern New York.

The show, which won Miranda his first Tony Award for Best Musical in 2008, follows the intersecting stories of several different members of a neighborhood in Washington Heights made up primarily of people with roots in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Spanish-speaking countries. Although the show doesn’t have a specific plot that drives all its characters, it seeks to highlight the many different ways the people of Washington Heights are being affected by gentrification and other social pressures. Nina, the “one who got out,” returns from Stanford after failing all of her classes because of an inability to support herself. Usnavi works to keep his struggling bodega afloat that he inherited from his parents, and Benny works to mediate socioeconomic tensions in his pursuit of love.

Both the book, written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, and the music and lyrics by Miranda shift in and out of English and Spanish, with most actors singing and speaking in both languages at different points in the show.

The show’s message of the pressures of gentrification and rising prices in neighborhoods made up of specific marginalized demographics felt particularly poignant as it played to the Bay Area audience, despite the show taking place across the country in Washington Heights, New York.

The star of the show, in more ways than one, was Usnavi (Julio Chavez). Chavez was absolutely electric as Usnavi, charming and lovable while easily flipping through the verbal gymnastics of Miranda’s complex, hip-hop-inspired score. Chavez shined especially brightly during the final few acts of the performance, when he was moved to tears several times during his heart wrenching-performance of “Alanaza” and again in the following scene.

Dedrick Weathersby delighted as Benny, easily coasting through the notoriously complex “Benny’s Dispatch.” Beyond “Benny’s Dispatch,” many of the songs were absolutely bursting with energy from the charismatic cast, such as “96,000” and “Carnaval Del Barrio.” Although she didn’t sing many songs, Abuela Claudia (Michelle Navarrette) stole the show with “Hundreds of Stories” with the ensemble behind her dressed straight out of the 1940s, transporting the audience back to when Claudia first immigrated to the United States. Piragua Guy (Ernie Tovar) also had a small but valuable addition to the show with “Piragua” and “Piragua (reprise).” With his deep, comforting voice, Tovar’s songs served as a simple and optimistic story of gentrification, separate from the drama of the main plot lines.

The play as a whole is a celebration of community. There isn’t a villain in the show or anyone who is out to get any of the lead protagonists. Rather, it is a show all about people with the best of intentions making whatever choices they feel are right.

Kate Tinney covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.