“In the Heights:” Broadway comes to Sutter Street

By: Gerry Camp
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Sutter Street Theatre has a couple of shows it returns to every year because people demand to see them again and again. The horror musical “Evil Dead the Musical” returns next month, and the great Christmas show, “Holiday in the Hills” is due back in December. If I had my way, the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical “In the Heights” would become another Sutter Street perennial.

The show, which runs through September, is about the best thing I’ve seen in more than four years of regular attendance. Set in the New York Latino community of Washington Heights, the story tells of three days in the lives of the folks in one block. Introducing himself and his neighbors is Usnavi De La Vega, proprietor of the corner Bodega, played by a great singer, Elio Gutierrez-Montoya, who also shared directing duties with Mike Jimena. Usnavi (named for the U.S. Navy ship his parents saw on their arrival) was raised by Abuela Claudia (an amazing performance by Helen Ventura). He is secretly in love with Vanessa (wonderful singer and dancer Christina Nicole Castor) who works in the nearby beauty salon.

A local girl, Nina (dynamic Sidney Racy-Gonzales), the daughter of the owner of the taxi company, returns home from Stanford University, afraid to tell her parents she has dropped out because of having to work two jobs to survive. She develops feelings for one of her father’s drivers, African-American Benny (Ryan Allen, a winning actor and brilliant singer), who speaks no Spanish. Nina’s father Kevin (Joseph Ramos) forbids the relationship.

As you see from the names I’ve mentioned, Sutter Street has been able to assemble a cast of magnificent mostly Latino performers. The show is so well-written that each of the featured performers is given a solo, and all exhibit Broadway-quality voices.

I’ve yet to mention the dancing, choreographed by Jacob Gutierrez-Montoya. I’ve never seen more riveting dancing. Sutter Street’s small stage is filled with brilliant movement featuring not only the main cast, but an ensemble of six additional wonderful dancers.

There’s a lot more plot, of course, including a $96,000 lottery ticket, which can change the lives of several characters, and a city-wide blackout.              

I must, however, list the other star performers. Jordan Hayakawa is Graffiti Pete, seen initially as a vandal, but later revealing his skills as an artist. Jacob Gutierrez-Montoya is the Piragua Guy, whose cart of snow cones (Piraguas) seems to be in the middle of everything and who sings a great song as well. Stephanie Lawson is funny as Vanessa’s friend and co-worker Carla. Christina Ratajczak is Nina’s mother, a fine foil for her grouchy father. Finally Sutter Street’s own young star, Luke Villaneuva (Elly nominated for his Jean Valjean in the recent “Les Miserables”), does a great job as Sonny, Usnavi’s young cousin.

If Sutter Street Theatre can assemble this brilliant cast of singers and dancers in future years, they should include this outstanding show in every season (until, of course, they get the rights to “Hamilton!”) Do not miss it while it is here now!