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‘In The Heights:’ Visionary Play Leaves Atlanta with Life Lessons

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As everyone is hopping onto the “Hamilton” bandwagon, people must not forget the magnificence of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first notable work, “In the Heights” which won four Tony Awards in 2008 and was actually the first hip-hop style musical introduced to the Broadway stage. The Theatrical Outfit (in Downtown Atlanta) and Aurora Theatre (in Gwinnett County), teamed up and co-produced a visionary piece of art that filled all of the audience seats in the Rialto Theatre for all four weeks “In the Heights” was on the stage. The musical completed its run in Atlanta Sept. 18, leaving all of Atlanta with not only unforgettable memories from the show, but with a valuable life lesson.

The musical is set in the district under the Washington Bridge in New York City, commonly known as Washington Heights. Before Lin-Manuel-Miranda’s show made it to Broadway, the district was seen as a sloppy slum that tourists avoided. Through the crafting of beautifully written rap lines and the catchy rhythm of Latin-American music, Miranda enlightens theatre goers about the rich culture and community of Washington Heights.

The story follows the lives of three generations of residents as they stumble through life in their harsh but loving community. A store owner named Usnavi struggles to keep up with his store that is falling apart ,while dreaming of escaping the bonds that hold him to Washington Heights. A seemingly strong, independent and gorgeous woman, Vanessa, — who Usnavi loves — seems to have life in the Heights all figured out. But under her confident disguise, she is hiding the pain of not being able to pay her rent and wishing to someday live above 46th Street. The pride of all of the community, Nina, just returning from her first year at Stanford University, is too embarrassed to tell her family that she dropped out due to losing her scholarship. Even when going through troubles, the characters still manage to find a way to support each other with love, and “paciencia y fe” — patience and faith.

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Everything changes once Usnavi’s grandmother, Abuela Claudia, wins $96,000 in the lottery. Usnavi begins to see that his much-wanted future is right within his reach, but is he willing to give up his traditions and love to leap toward an uncertain future? New York actor Diego Klock-Perez starred as Usnavi. His way of articulating and vocalizing the poetic rap lines Miranda wrote made him extremely successful in the role. Having recent experience in the role at the SpeakEasy theatre in Boston, Perez captivated the audience and kept everyone on the edge of their seats as he narrated theWashington Heights story  through Usnavi’s eyes and led them to the show’s final moments, when Usnavi finally makes his choice.

In the role of Vanessa, Julissa Sabino made her first Theatrical Outfit debut and managed to appease everyone’s ears with her stunning voice. The role of Nina was played by Diany Rodriguez, who has been seen all around Atlanta in notable credits such as “Into the Woods” and “Bull Durham: The Musical,” and has performed Off-Broadway in “Soul Birds” and “Survivor’s Remorse.” Rodriguez’s voice (although at some times a bit pitchy) paired with Garrett Turner’s, who played Benny, Nina’s love, formed a rich harmony that raised the bar for “couple goals.”

Adding to the show’s success? Every single actor could dance, sing and command attention. There was no weak link. One unexpected performer in particular stood out to me: Juan Carlos Unzueta was just supposed to play a guy who wheeled around a cart filled with “piragua” (snow cones), but as soon as he opened his mouth to sing, my jaw dropped. His voice filled the room with a deep resonance that brought tears of joy to many eyes. Who knew an ensemble member could take an ordinary role and make it move the whole audience?

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Along with the stunning choreography, mesmerizing vocals and free snow cones the front row received from the piraguas guy, the Atlanta co-production of “In the Heights” taught everyone a lesson. I commend Theatrical Outfit and the Aurora Theatre for putting on such a show that not only lifted my spirits, but taught me to look past the graffiti- filled slums of Washington Heights and to respect the people living there who work hard to earn a better life as well as maintain their traditions and unite as a community.

Rebecca, a VOX teen staffer, is a 16-year-old passionate theatre-goer and actress who dreams of someday dancing on the Broadway stage.

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