Alabanza! Original Broadway Cast of In the Heights Celebrates Love, Family and Home in Washington Heights
By Michael Gioia
Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast and creative team from the 2008 Tony-winning musical In the Heights reunited Feb. 11 for a starry one-night-only concert in Washington Heights. Playbill.com was there.
"Good Lord… I'm really, honestly quite speechless," confessed Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony-winning songwriter and star of In the Heights, following the highly anticipated reunion concert — which benefited The Broadway League's Family First Nights, a nationwide program designed to encourage at-risk families to attend theatre on a regular basis, and local arts programs in Washington Heights — at the United Palace of Cultural Arts in Washington Heights. (Viva Broadway, an initiative of the Broadway League, presented the evening.)
Miranda, who garnered a deafening applause from the moment he took center stage at the 3,400-seat theatre — and again, as he placed the signature flat cap on his head, embodying the life of charismatic bodega owner Usnavi — seemed to be the only one without words at In the Heights: In Concert. In fact, family, friends and fans who populated the United Palace on 175th Street often sang — or rapped — along to the iconic score that took Broadway by storm five years earlier.
"This is a family, and we just absolutely adore each other, so to revisit this music and have everybody come and celebrate this piece that we all adore, and see how it's affected our community, and to be able to present this in Washington Heights…and for this cause, it's just all plus, plus, plus, win, win, win," Janet Dacal, who originated the role of salon worker Carla, told Playbill.com at the swank In the Heights after-party held at the The Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center. "You just saw people mouthing the words or singing the words along with us!"
Before the music began, however, Miranda assured that all theatregoers outside the United Palace — who stood in a will-call line that, according to the massive outpour on Twitter, stretched four blocks — would be seated. "We had trouble seating everyone because it was such a crazy line," explained Miranda. "It was around the block, so I ran around the block and said, 'We're not starting until you're all seated!'"
("I didn't know that," interjected original Daniela, Andréa Burns, "that's beautiful!")
Miranda continued, "It was just the best way to start because it was just like a love fest — beginning to end."
As the cast walked out onto the United Palace stage — adorned with a backdrop reminiscent of Anna Louizos' Tony-nominated set design, a band led by Tony-winning orchestrator Alex Lacamoire and two rows of seats for the Broadway cast of In the Heights — the crowd immediately rose to their feet.
"We actually had to hold ourselves back because [we were] told, 'Listen, you can't stand' because the lighting guy was right behind us," said In the Heights alum Courtney Reed, who sat with fellow Heights veterans in the front of House Left — a section that jumped for joy following each number and pulsed with enthusiasm throughout the evening. "But it was so difficult for us to just sit. Every number we would just be up on our feet freaking out — a standing ovation after every number."
An ovation after every number is correct. Immediately following the opening number, and title track from In the Heights, the crowd burst with excitement, and the cast knew they were in for an experience unlike any other.
"Tonight was pretty unbelievable," said Karen Olivo, who originated the role of Vanessa and would go on to win a Tony Award for her work in West Side Story. "We prepared for it — we thought — and then we got out there, and the crowd was just so full of love and so into it, it really did knock us off our feet!"
During her big numbers, including a full-voiced and heartfelt "It Won't Be Long Now," Olivo admitted that she was "actually thinking 'Respira' — I was thinking 'Breathe' [the song performed by the character of Nina] — because it was really overwhelming…and I even messed up because I got so emotional and then I [thought], 'Where am I?'" Her "mess up," as she referred to, was quite charming. Olivo — decked to the nines in a pink sequin dress with a tutu at the bottom — was obviously so lost in the moment during "It Won't Be Long Now" that she asked the audience to sing along. Her song, as the others, ended in rapturous applause and yet another "Standing O."
Lost in the moment is how most of the cast described the evening. Robin de Jesus, Tony-nominated for his performance as Sonny in Heights, said, "Tonight was like magic. It was like Cinderella at the end [of Into the Woods] going, 'I wish!'"
He continued, "You have moments of feeling like you're totally with it, and you have other moments where you [think], 'What the f*ck is happening right now?!' to the point where you almost have to tell yourself [to] come back… You're present but you're not present. It's really, really weird, but it's just [so] wonderful. Watching Mandy [Gonzalez] sing 'Everything I Know,' and to approach that song [now] as a mother…! Since we've left the show, we've had marriages, we've had relationships, breakups, we've had babies born, we've had some people start businesses — like [Stephanie Klemons], one of the cast members, is my writing partner now [on an upcoming self-help book to musical theatre]. There's just so much that's changed, and so to come back and approach the show now with the many new versions of ourselves, it's really fascinating and really great."
"I think that all of us have grown up a lot since being on Broadway, so everything means something different now — it's a lot deeper — and that's just what was happening for me in that moment," said original Nina, Mandy Gonzalez, of revisiting "Everything I Know," the emotional ballad dedicated to the character of Abuela (there was not a dry eye in Washington Heights following the number).
The evening also included audience participation in parts — encouraging shout-outs, the emergence of iPhone lights during "Blackout" and the raising of Puerto Rican and Dominican Republic flags during "Carnaval del Barrio" — as well as songs that were cut from the show when it made the transfer from Off-Broadway to Broadway. Doreen Montalvo performed "Siempre," and Christopher Jackson sang "Hear Me Out."
When the sun went down, as they say in the show, on Washington Heights and the United Palace Theatre, various Heights alum were invited to the stage for a finale and encore. The words "I'm home" never resonated so strongly, and, yet again, hopes and dreams seemed palpable in upper Manhattan.
On the night, Burns added, "For all of us to congregate in one space and celebrate together — audience and performers — it was just this communion…and beautiful."
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)
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