“In The Heights” Turns From New York To New Haven

 Steffon Sampson as Usnavi in Arts In CT's production of  In The Heights . The show runs this Friday and Saturday at Wilbur Cross High School. 

Steffon Sampson as Usnavi in Arts In CT's production of In The Heights. The show runs this Friday and Saturday at Wilbur Cross High School. 

The salsa is pumping when the fuse blows. Lights flicker, music catches, someone throws a punch. A flash, and bodies tangle and untangle, searching for each other in the darkness. A spray of fireworks explodes overhead, lighting them up in brilliant color.

So what if the electricity is out? They are powerless, and powerful, and they will be just fine.  

So unfolds Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, on at Wilbur Cross High School Friday and Saturday through Arts In CT. Continuing a legacy that Hairspray set last year, the play champions people of color, tight-knit community and social justice in a political climate where they may feel increasingly threatened. More information and tickets available here.

Written, then workshopped, by Miranda in the late 1990s and early 2000s, In The Heights tells the story of New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood as it finds itself on the cusp of gentrification around 2000. The neighborhood is vibrant because of the majority-Latino immigrants who fill its shops, cut its hair, run its taxi companies and mother its children—people who are extraordinary for the regular lives they live. Their stories, told in a mix of English and Spanish, are packed with the same lyrical swerve that more recently made Hamilton famous, with rap and hip-hop don’t just underscore the show, but build its backbone. 

 Maria Hendricks and Faith Fernandez as Daniela and Vanessa. 

Maria Hendricks and Faith Fernandez as Daniela and Vanessa. 

Like the story of the play itself—a humble piece at Wesleyan that became a Broadway sensation—everything about this world is aspirational. There us Usnavi (Steffon Sampson), named after a U.S. naval ship that his parents saw as they sailed into New York from the Dominican Republic. With his cousin Sonny (Emmanuel Gonzalez), he runs the neighborhood bodega, selling cafe con leche and lottery tickets to residents who dream of a bigger, richer life. Think whole milk and sugar instead of condensed, reliable air conditioning instead of a unit that goes on and off in fits and starts. 

The neighborhood is his world—literally. As we learn early in the play, he’s never been below 96th street. His neighborhood is a big, messy, extended family—starting with love interest Vanessa (Faith Fernandez), who can’t wait to get out of the neighborhood but can’t get a realtor who will overlook her bad credit. There's Nina (Jessica Gagne) and her through-and-through Boricua parents, who own the local cab company but are crushed under the weight of her college tuition. Her love interest Benny (Thomas Mueller/Jose Resto), the only character in the play who isn’t Latino, and speaks no more than a handful of Spanish. And Abuela Claudia (Jane Prieto), who is no one’s blood grandmother and thus grandmothers everybody in a five-block radius of her big, delicate heart.  

In the minimal trappings of Cross’ auditorium, we are rooting for this motley crew from the moment lights come up on Graffiti Pete (John Alston), an aspiring artist who Usnavi shoos away with a broom. As our unlikely hero, Sampson slips into Miranda’s verse with ease, the words spilling from his mouth in seamless flow. 

 John Alston and Sampson. 

John Alston and Sampson. 

I am Usnavi and you prob’ly never heard my name/reports of my fame/ are greatly exaggerated
Exacerbated by the fact/ that my syntax/Is highly complicated/ 'cause I emigrated
From the single greatest little place in the Caribbean:/Dominican/Republic

But it’s more than that. He is lovable, a sort of whip-smart and oddly suave fuddy-duddy, overwhelmed as much by his young desires as he is by a huge sense of responsibility to the community. He doesn’t just show up—he shows up in style, rocking choreography, speaking directly to the audience as much as he does his fellow residents.   

And the other cast members fall in step—literally. We are head over heels for Benny as he takes over the Rosario’s taxi dispatch temporarily, masterful on the mic as he spit-sings directions out into the city that never sleeps. It’s not an easy role to fill—the original Benny was Freestyle Love Supreme’s Christopher Jackson, who went on to play George Washington in the original Hamilton. The character demands code-switching—Benny is described as "Black, White, Asian or any other non-Latino" in the script, although Resto is Latino—and linguistic gymnastics. And the actors, both high school students, get it.

 Resto as Benny in final tech. 

Resto as Benny in final tech. 

Okay/we got traffic on the west side/Get off at 79th, and take the left side, Benny croons,
Of Riverside Drive, and ya might slide/West End’s ya best friend/ if you catch the liiights
And don’t take the Deegan/Manny Ramirez is in town this weekend
Sorry Dominicans/take Route 87/You ain’t gettin' back in again

That’s also true of Gagne as Nina. Sweet from the moment we meet her, this Nina is all about hidden power, full of the brilliance and fury she doesn’t always know what to do with. With a hidden talent for belting, she brings us to our knees in her introductory “Breathe,” spinning into song the circumstances that forced her to drop out of college, and return home embarrassed and disgraced. If you’ve ever been that student standing in the college bookstore, unable to afford those $300 textbooks your scholarship doesn’t cover, you get her immediately. If you haven’t, she makes sure you’re with her by the end of the first song anyway. 

Indeed, this In The Heights succeeds because it’s the story of people we know, and people we’ve been. There are things that are uniquely New York about the playbook, like references to the city’s changing topography and transportation (“I used to think/I lived at the top of the world/when the world was just a subway map”) that don’t work the same way in a small Connecticut city. 

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But they never overpower a larger message: that gentrification, and the looming specter of displacement and poverty that comes with it, is everywhere. No marginalized group is safe in its wake; no Abuela Claudia’s history doesn’t risk being erased. Forced with an upcoming move to the Bronx, Daniela’s neighborhood salon (anchored by the fiery Maria Hendricks) could be in upper Fair Haven, where the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association is battling private developers who are eyeing the neighborhood’s vacant Strong School

The musical’s endearing piragua seller (a virtuosic Dhafir Jackson Battle, who we need to see more of in future productions) is the unlicensed vendor we love on Grand or Whalley, from whom we have bought coconut ices and hot dogs on 90-degree days. We are a city of graffiti Petes, of corner stores that have magical cafe con leche and $2 egg-and-cheese sandwiches worth the 30-minute walk. A city of already-vibrant neighborhoods, with gentrification vampires nibbling away at their edges, and then their core. 

The cast brings that tension to life with everything it has. We see it as the ensemble fills the stage with propulsive choreography in “96,000,” so named for the $96,000 winning lottery ticket that Usnavi has sold, but not yet found the winner of. As cast members tell the audience what they’d do with the money, all of them have the same goal: get out. Go somewhere else, before the going gets too hard right where they are. Give up on a neighborhood that they see as giving up on them. 

 Dhafir Jackson Battle

Dhafir Jackson Battle

We see it as Benny and Nina sit together on a front stoop, a tentative and sweet portrait of young love, and joke that they are both learning foreign languages in their jobs. For Benny, the challenge is vernacular Spanish. Puerto Rican Spanish is different than Dominican Spanish, which is different from Ecuadorian Spanish, he tells Nina. How can he possibly master any of them? 

As a talent that keeps on giving, Gagne is a soft, sympathetic and open Nina to this suggestion. The character has learned a similar lesson at Stanford: that the English of the privileged is not the English of the working poor. That if you are rich enough, “weekend” can become a verb populated with swimming and skiing at a vacation house on a lake. That if you are not, it’s the time of the week you take on another job, and hope you still have time to study for that exam. 

The two tell us the story of their understanding and immense compassion in their body language. It’s a kind of language replicated when Usnavi and Vanessa dance, when lovers find each other in the frightening darkness of a fourth of July party, when the Rosarios fight and fret and fume and make up, when fireworks light up the sky and stop the whole cast in their tracks. A language, palabras or no palabras, that shows there is love in this world—young love, and sweet love, but also the kind of hard and fierce love you want in the place you live.

 Jane Prieto as Abuela Claudia. 

Jane Prieto as Abuela Claudia. 

It is a soul-feeding, life-giving celebration of immigrants that Connecticut needs on the eve of this gubernatorial election, where the most exciting vote one can cast is arguably for a strong Latina on the ballot running for Lieutenant Governor. Where gentrification doesn’t always win, and Donald Trump is no more than Benny’s caddy on an aspirational golf course. Where the people who choose to stay and build community are the next generation. Where not everything is going to be all right, but enough is going to be.

That carries to the world of Arts In CT, founded just over a year ago by Barbara Alexander. After putting the group’s summer theater troupe on the map with Hairspray last year, she said she and co-director Aja Bogan-Dennison wanted to continue the theme of radical love across racial barriers, expanding the story to immigrant rights. As a woman of color herself in a still-very-white world of theater, Alexander said it's something she's thinking about constantly. 

Unlike last year, she had a surprising assist in choosing the show—Wilbur Cross student Emmanuel “Manny” Gonzalez, who plays Sonny in the show. For almost a year, Gonzalez reached out to Alexander, seeing if she would consider the play for an Arts In CT teen summer camp. After falling in love with Hamilton three years ago, he discovered In The Height’s soundtrack at a friend’s suggestion. And in it, Gonzales— the child of two Puerto Ricans who met in the Bronx—heard his family. 

 Emmanuel “Manny” Gonzalez as Sonny.

Emmanuel “Manny” Gonzalez as Sonny.

“It blew my mind!” he recalled at final tech rehearsal Thursday, telling the story of his grandmother's migration from the island in the middle of the century. “I was like, ‘where has this been all my life?!’ I can picture my whole family on this stage, because of like, how Hispanic this are. So I really felt this play.”

It became a community production, Alexander said. With Bogan-Dennison, she also got help from parent Ilsa Otero-Resto, whose son, daughter, and husband are all in the play. When In The Heights’ casting came back with a cast that wasn’t just Latino but also heavily Black, Otero-Resto and Prieto sat down and talked with the cast about what it meant to play characters who are Latino, and what kinds of responsibility were on the actors. It was eye-opening in the best possible way, said Bogan-Dennison.

“I was fortunate enough to be raised in an Italian and African-American family with friends who are Puerto Rican,” she said. “And I learned new things! But for me … I feel like I grew in family in this process.”

“For us, this is a chance all to appreciate different cultures, and language and values,” Alexander added. “Because the values are really the same. But you won’t get into that until you get into the play, and you start understanding.”

To watch a video from the cast's final tech/dress rehearsal, click below: