Nearly a year and a day later, I’m at it again….
Back in December Lin-Manuel Miranda announced a special In The Heights concert actually being held in The Heights at the United Palace Theatre. Like Hamilton, it happened to fall into my schedule without affecting my vacation days, so I immediately went about securing show ticket, plane ticket and hotel. With the concert being on a Monday this time, I didn’t have to do that turnaround flight and could actually enjoy some tourist time in New York City. As the weeks went by it didn’t once occur to me to look at the calendar to check the concert date until late January, when Carnival season started in New Orleans. (Semantics lesson, darlings: Mardi Gras is ONE DAY–Fat Tuesday, as the name translates. The period of time between Epiphany (January 6) through the Monday before is Carnival. Unless you are including that Tuesday in your vacation plans you ARE NOT coming to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.) For the first time in my life I would be leaving the state at the height of Carnival season–and voluntarily leaving relatively balmy weather for cold, ice and snow. Several times I questioned my devotion to Lin in the face of this weather, particular when the full brunt of “Nemo” slammed the East Coast with a lot of snow. It was too late to cancel, but my concerns were enough for me to consider taking the financial hit and skipping the trip. However, I was assured that the weather had gotten better in the area I was going to be, and there should be no problem getting in and getting around. So…I walked into JFK from MSY, hopped a shuttle and got to my hotel. Hooked into the Interwebs immediately to get directions, subway info and a head start on this post, and then spent the better part of an hour getting cute and bundling up for my subway trip into Washington Heights.
I did manage to get there 15 minutes before the scheduled show time, and there was a pretty large crowd outside waiting to get in. The United Palace Theater is GORGEOUS—I was immediately homesick as the ornate architecture reminded me of the Saenger Theater at home, which has yet to come back after Katrina did her damage. I grabbed a souvenir In The Heights book to go with the rest of my Broadway collection, making a note to strangle whoever marks up the prices fivefold for the national tours, then made my way to my seat. Walking in, the set was a cross between Heights and Hamilton—it had the tenement backdrop with the GWB front and center, but with the band on a raised platform in front of it and three rows of chairs on the stage in front for the performers. The show started late (running on “Dominican People Time,” according to my new friend and Dominican seatmate), as we would later learn, because there were still excited fans outside hoping to score tickets standing outside to board “JetBlue flight 313 to the Dominican Republic.” (I’m gonna say Mr. Luis made that announcement since from what I understand Lin was outside assuring the hopefuls that the show wouldn’t start without them.) The next thing I know murmurs are rumbling about general admission seating—meaning whoever just paid for a ticket can sit anywhere there’s an open seat—including the floor area where I was. I was halfway miffed because I’d probably have waited to get to New York if I’d known I could have been on the floor for cheaper, but only for a minute. Besides, I know I’d have been ticked if I’d flown that far and not gotten in, not to mention the concert was benefiting the arts in Washington Heights, so every ticket was going toward a good cause AND every fan would be getting a good show. Finally, at 8:37 pm, one of the event chairs came out to thunderous applause. After thanking the audience for coming out in support, she introduced Mr. Miranda—Mr. LUIS Miranda—who apparently was the true genius behind this concert taking place. Seems Lin and Karen Olivo (the girl he used to kiss eight times a week, yo) were waxing nostalgic about the upcoming 5 year anniversary of In The Heights coming to Broadway, and wouldn’t it be great if they could have some sort of reunion…so Papa M made some calls, got a theater and some backers and set up a show. (As the show actually previewed on February 14, 2008 but the United Palace was only available on February 11, I have to thank that twist of fate from keeping me from a mysterious case of bird flu and another turnaround NY trip.) After then informing his son that he now had a future engagement and some phone calls to make, I imagine Lin started rounding up the crew and thus the In The Heights reunion was on. Papa M spoke a little more on the purpose of the evening and then introduced the cast to thunderous cheering and applause. Folks starting filing out to their seats on the stage dressed in their finest “casual cute,” with the notable exception of the dynamic disco-ball divas that were the salon ladies—Daniela (Andréa Burns), Carla (Janet Dacal) and Vanessa (Karen Olivo, who tamed hers with some very warm and comfortable Uggs). Last out was Lin (who I’m now convinced wear sneakers EVERYWHERE) who stayed on the stage for all of three seconds—once the hat slipped on (to more raucous appreciation), he morphed into Usnavi and launched into the opening number. Without costumes, I had to use my imagination to fully set the scene, but the actors’ enthusiasm did wonders for that. As did the crowd’s, including an extremely boisterous bunch in the front left section that we later found out was the replacement Broadway cast members as well as cast members from the national tours. From our initial musical tour In The Heights we move straight into Breathe, with Mandy González stealing ours, as usual, with a beautiful performance. Lin broke character for a minute to allow us another moment to appreciate her and to give us a heads-up about some potential surprises (bonus songs—SCORE!), and then on to Benny’s Dispatch we went. We get a very lively and spirited performance from Mandy and Christopher Jackson—so much so that a certain female fan shouted her, um, “appreciation” for Benny from the audience, nearly cracking Chris up. Lin did get a good guffaw and then joked about the woman’s savvy in “breaking up” Nina and Benny early in the relationship. Moving on to It Won’t Be Long Now, Karen Olivo begins to sing as Seth Stewart, Luis Salgado and (I think) Joshua Henry or Rogelio Douglas, Jr. add their flair for footwork to give the flavor of Vanessa’s over ardent, would-be suitors. Lin/Usnavi shooed them away in a sort of Godzilla stalker-like fashion and proceed to muddle his way through asking “Vanessa” out—which we know she says yes to thanks to Robin de Jesus’s Sonny, prompting a hilarious “Gangnam style” celebratory…..let’s call it a dance. Poor Karen—Lin and Robin’s foolishness made her miss her next lyric. She covered like a trooper though and finished the number. Then came Rick Negron, Kevin Rosario in the original cast, performing one of my favorites, Inútil. A slightly different feeling from the Carlos Gómez rendition I’m used to but just as marvelous. Moving on to the salon and No Me Diga, Andréa, Janet, Karen and Mandy amuse and delight with the bawdy innuendo of the tune. We get another small time-out from Lin for thanks and acknowledgements before launching into 96,000. (I am ashamed to admit that I completely forgot about this song. The only excuse I can come up with is that I was extremely anxious to get to Miss Olga Merediz and Paciencia Y Fe. I got my Lin vocal fix during Hamilton; this show’s highlight was having the privilege to watch HER sing.) I think anyone who has seen the show itself, the Tony performance or the flash mob (which probably covers everybody in the theater) was dancing along in their seats to this one. A few bars reprise and then spotlight on Miss Olga musically transporting us to Abuela’s life story and amazing stroke of luck through Patience and Faith. Following a well-deserving standing ovation, Mandy and Chris return to the stage for our second Nina/Benny combo, When You’re Home, and Eliseo Roman’s beleaguered but optimistic Piragüa Guy scraping by to make a living in the barrio. This gave Lin a good opportunity to throw in the first of the evening’s extras—Siempre, the bolero tune played during the dinner scene at the Rosarios sung beautifully by Doreen Montalvo. (For fans such as myself who had to depend on their CD soundtrack for their dose of ITH, it’s a longer version of the tune that begins the finale number.) Coming to the end of “Act 1,” we have a bit of a good scene for The Club—where EVERYBODY got out of their seats to get their samba on while the band got their spotlight—up to the beginning of Blackout, where copious numbers of cell phones got whipped out and waved back and forth…by the CAST. Slightly disappointed that the Nina/Benny “fireworks” (translation: kiss) didn’t jump off in this performance, but there are clips everywhere…I’ll deal.
With a great first half behind us, I kept trying to decide who out of Lin and Alex Lacamoire was more into the performance, as both appeared to be bouncing around enough to generate their own power for all the stage lights AND the semi-fictional block; upon the cast’s return to the stage following intermission, Lin tells us that Alex was so enthusiastic and engrossed in playing during the first act that his thumbs started bleeding and he didn’t notice until the curtain closed. Game, set and match to Mr. Lacamoire, indeed. Act 2 begins with the new day at Sunrise (Al Amanecer), the part of the show where apparently Chris and Mandy were saving the smolder for—where the “afterglow” is. Whatever intimacy is implied between the two characters following the onset of the blackout is tenderly and expertly displayed through the couple’s Spanish lesson, charmingly conveyed by Jackson and González as expected. Next up is my double-dose dream team of Lin-Manuel and Miss Olga on Hundreds of Stories, preceded by Lin’s tale of actually coming up with Usnavi’s name on a boat courtesy of the Luis Miranda, Jr. mandated family cruise. (If it wasn’t already apparent by the organization of this very concert, Papa M gets the “Big Baller, Shot Caller” award. Jay-Z who?) It still bemuses me how that name only clicked at the moment Abuela sings those lines—proof that nobody has a monopoly on “hooked-up” names. Jumping back to the Rosario family brings Mandy González, Rick Negron and Natalie Toro to the spotlight, as Camila’s exasperation with her bull-headed husband and daughter is more than Enough. To be honest, Toro vs. P. Lo (Priscilla Lopez of the original Broadway cast) is not a fair vocal fight, but I was moved by the passion in Ms. Toro’s performance; so while I didn’t quite get “Toro’d” I could certainly appreciate that powerful voice. Time to wave those benderas for Carnaval del Barrio, and Lin invites the audience to “wave ‘em if you got ‘em.” Great. New Orleans has SIX freakin’ flags—at least two of them of Latin origin—and I’m not in possession of a single one of them….but I do have the gray applejack hat that protected my ‘fro from the mist on the way to the theater. So that will have to do—and it did. I didn’t have the stones to actually get out of my chair and dance along, but there was a lot and waving and booty-wiggling from my seat, and with the company’s exuberance amplified by Eliseo’s joy and Andréa’s awesome vocal command, it’s easy to understand why. The block party continues in a celebratory interlude in order to segué into Atención and Alabanza, my other most favorite song of the soundtrack. Alabanza pulled at my heartstrings anyway, with its plaintively urgent but simple delivery of sadness, confusion and grief. But the poignancy of this performance just stilled the room. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: This song was played in heavy rotation last year when I lost my godmother, so it has an even deeper personal and emotional attachment for me now. One more reason for me to thank Lin for lending me his words.) Rebuilding our hopes and raising our spirits is Everything I Know, in which Mandy’s Nina sifts through memories and personal conflicts to overcome her doubts and sadness and recommits herself to pursuing her dreams. There just aren’t enough superlatives to properly describe Mandy’s vocal and performance brilliance, so I won’t even try. Piragüa Guy gets his revenge against Mr. Softee and capitalizes on the summer heat in his Reprise, treating us to one more wonderfully rousing round of Eliseo, followed by Lin’s last extra of the evening, a Christopher Jackson showcase called Hear Me Out. What I suppose I could best describe as “Enough: Benny’s Take,” it borrows Benny’s musical theme from 96,000 to heal the rift between Kevin and Nina while asserting Benny’s confidence and worth as an enterprising businessman and an ardent suitor. It is Benny’s declaration of manhood to both Kevin as a father figure and Nina as an aspiring soulmate. Cut only because of the wealth of heavy-duty vocal numbers in the second act (something had to be a casualty, and I think Lin made the right call, as Camila’s chastisement in Enough was plenty to get her muleheaded loved ones to change their perspectives and still advance the plot to the point where Benny gains Nina’s love and Kevin’s respect), I’m glad it got its day in the sun at this event. Oh, and that’s a big resounding yes to both Benny AND Chris—you’re a man. ALL. DAY. *sigh* OK, curbing my old, married lady crush and moving toward the close of the show, we get the most faithful rendition and biggest treat of the night with Champagne, Lin and Karen reviving Usnavi and Vanessa’s pivotal “a-ha” moment in their relationship. Let me be clear: I NEED another national tour to happen. Have to see this show on stage the way it was meant to be seen. But if I never get that opportunity, this was the performance that will allow me to be reasonably content if it never happens. Oh, boy….that kiss nearly fogged up my glasses. I’m not even gonna talk about it—watch it for yourselves.
(Oh, and a huge thanks to all you intrepid YouTubers who basically posted the entire concert—anyone who wants a taste of the evening can search to their heart’s content for just about every song I mentioned.)
Our last Benny/Nina fix for the evening, Chris and Mandy give us When The Sun Goes Down, the tender combination of romance and realism as the two step into the new and uncharted territory of romance and commitment while cementing a lasting bond with each other to transcend anything that may come. Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and while we as an audience and devoted fans could have sat in the theater for at least another hour experiencing that magic, it’s time for the Finale. Watching the original cast come together one last time would have been treat enough, but it wouldn’t be a fitting reunion without calling on the whole “alumni association,” so the ENTIRE cast of original, replacement and tour members of the In The Heights family crowded the front of the stage to perform. What had to be about 50 or 60 voices began to blow the doors open in the theater with power and heart. To borrow from another Broadway favorite (and at the risk of being hella corny), you could definitely feel the love that night. The palpable sense of family coming out from the stage and going back in from the audience just made being home that much more special. I am so glad I didn’t let Nemo scare me out of New York—I’ll always have MY Carnival, but this Carnaval was worth the trip and more. Kudos to everyone on a wonderful evening, and for gifting us with it in the first place.
(As usual, I waxed longer than I really needed to and still didn’t say everything—and, like the last time, personal travelogue to follow. )