In The Heights Review

WINTER PARK — Full disclosure: I never intended to write a review for In The Heights at the Breakthrough Theatre of Winter Park. Number one, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to see it until well into its run due to circumstances beyond my control. Secondly, I was afraid of being too judgmental and/or too attached to render a fair review because of my past history with the show.

Well, fears be gone! My only regret is in not seeing this sooner and getting this review up faster (although you still have one remaining weekend to attempt to get tickets for). This In The Heights delivers in ways unique and unexpected. Jonathan Barreto (Usnavi) delivers a great performance as a young man anchored to realities he resents, but dreaming of a tomorrow he hopes to one day have. He is equal parts earnest and weathered and he connects with all of his castmates, although I found his scenes with and about Abuela to be among his strongest.

What Makes In The Heights Stand Out?

In The Heights at Breakthrough Theater

Speaking of Abuela Claudia, Angela Cotto (who also does a fantastic job in the dual roles of director/musical director) is a revelation in the role. Abuela is often played larger than life, in part due to the size of the spaces that have usually housed the show. Cotto finds the quiet nuances, the softness of the character. We can see, up close and personal, how her life has affected her, both good and bad, and can see her fight to stay present for Usnavi and the others.

Isabel Bernal is terrific as Nina. Easily up to the vocal challenge of the role, her emotional presence in every moment she spends on stage, and particularly within her songs, is inspiring. Her authenticity shines through and is then augmented by Mark Prosper’s Benny. Prosper adds a sweetness to Benny that others have lacked, making the moments in which he is hurt that much more resonant. His coupling with Bernal’s Nina is not only believable, but one we actually find ourselves rooting for.

Gemalz Porrata (Vanessa) is easily the strongest vocalist in a very strong ensemble. She couples that with interesting choices in both vocal and line delivery that shine the light at new elements within the character. Daniella (Minssy Zamora) and Carla (Felipe Verela) are much more than just able foils for Porrata, with Verela in particular finding moments to show us Carla’s depth.

Edwin J. Perez and Suzanne Elliot break past what can easily become stereotypical tropes as Kevin and Camilla, while carving their own paths not travelled by other successful interpretations. Perez knows how to use acting chops within a song and tease us with emotion without spilling all the candy too soon. Elliot makes some distinctive choices early on, only to reverse course and forcefully find her power in “Enough”.

Jonathan Betancourt’s Sonny is the perfect mix of youth and impending manhood and a few of his acrobatic dance moves may take your breath away. As his pal, Graffiti Pete, Adourin Owens finds humor at every turn, both scripted and ad libbed, leading to several laugh out loud sequences. Bryan Boggiano Verdecia’s Piragua Guy hits all the notes with ease, but delivers enough glimmer in his eye to know he’s in on the joke that is his struggle to remain relevant in a Mr. Softee world.

Does In The Heights Fully Deliver?

The ensemble (Allyson elliott, Brianni Betancourt, Carissa Gonnzalez, Marasha Symone Johnson, Rebecca DeJesus, Elijah Garcia, Jon Jimenez, Samuel Portugal) do not ever allow you to leave Washington Heights. They are present in every moment on stage and bring the barrio ALIVE with their singing, dancing and acting.

Kudos must also be given to Jon Jimenez (set design) and Jhalon Thomas (choreographer) for fitting all of Washington Heights into a relatively smaller space. Jimenez wisely sprawls things out to give us the cityscape feel. Thomas creates immersive dance sequences that had me ready to jump in and join the party. On the lighting side, although no one is credited in the program, lights were used quite effectively to create signature moments both big and small.

Breakthrough’s In The Heights proves that if your heart (and talent) is in the right place, this story can be effectively told anywhere.

Congratulations on a mission very much accomplished.

Breakthrough Theatre Company is at 6900 Aloma Ave. in Winter Park. Call 407-920-4034 for tickets and more information.

Paul Castaneda
Theatrical Producer/Director, Playwright, Actor
Co-Creator, EL WIZ
Co-Artistic Director, Colors Y Colores Collaborative
Theatre is life on fire

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