It’s not only cool to see and hear “In the Heights” performed in Spanish. It’s also la justicia.
After all, what the show’s composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” renown, accomplished with book writer Quiara Allegría Hudes in this earlier, Tony-winning work was nothing less than the rocketing of Latino aspirations and culture onto the main stage of American musical theater.
So there is a sense of linguistic homecoming for this kaleidoscopic story of contemporary life among the Americans of Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, and Mexican descent in Manhattan’s Washington Heights to be sung in the language of its rollicking, struggling characters. And how grand for GALA Hispanic Theatre, the tenacious company tackling Spanish and Latin American plays in Columbia Heights, to be the one to produce it — in what the organization asserts is the U.S. premiere for this Spanish translation with English surtitles.
And sung with verve in a highly entertaining, often impressively acted production, staged with evident affection by director-choreographer Luis Salgaldo. With a nine-member orchestra conducted by Walter “Bobby” McCoy tucked away behind Elizabeth J. McFadden’s set of a row of urban storefronts, GALA’s “In the Heights” is commendable for its ambition. But a few technical kinks still need to be worked out.
It’s important to be said that you don’t have to know Spanish to enjoy this evening. Many scenes and songs, adapted by Amaury Sanchez and Salgado Productions, alternate in Spanish and English. And in any event, salsa is a universal language. Initially, it is a bit tricky to follow along, especially in the hip-hop sequences, as song verses shift from one language to the other and your eye has to move from the actors to the electronic message boards overhead. Once you’re acclimated, though, comprehension is not a problem.
Still, sound designer Roc Lee has additional work to do, because the amplification of the band is erratic, making the work of both the actors and the audience more difficult than it should be. On the night I attended, the sound system went loudly on the fritz at a critical juncture, and though the sound booth patched it quickly, a spectator remained a bit on edge, conscious in the occasionally unfocused staging of further potential glitches.
“In the Heights” is a technically demanding show, not the least because it chronicles a holiday in New York City when fireworks explode and a citywide blackout turns off the electric atmosphere. It is also a rigorous undertaking because the episodic musical unfolds a multitude of plots concerning, among other tales, those of a lovesick bodega owner; a failing Stanford student; an African American taxi dispatcher trying to ingratiate himself with the parents of the young Latina he loves; a religious abuela and the gossipy buzz in a neighborhood beauty salon.
You can feel the influence of “Rent” in this first foray by Miranda onto Broadway, where it opened in 2008, after earlier runs out of town and off-Broadway. If you substitute the barrio for bohemia, you can deduce how Miranda was inspired by “Rent’s” Jonathan Larson to conjure the particular slice of New York he knew and loved and wanted to show the rest of the world. As with “Rent,” narrative in “In the Heights” isn’t as vital as character. The emphasis on personality manifested in song doesn’t always lend itself to a satisfying caliber of storytelling. And yet like “Rent,” there is a larger story here worth telling: how the city forges families that transcend bloodlines.
Miranda and Hudes offer ample opportunity, too, for robust solo moments, and several of GALA’s actors grab the spotlight as if they were born to it. For example, Verónica Álvarez Robles , who plays Vanessa, the woman Usnavi (Juan Luis Espinal) pines for, and who aches to live downtown, is downright sensational. During the Act 1 number “Ya Falta Poco” (“Almost There”) and elsewhere, she is a dynamic dancing-and-singing force. Espinal himself, in the big-hearted role Miranda played on Broadway, proves to be an appealing guide to the neighborhood.
Vaughn Ryan Midder’s Benny, who only wants the disapproving parents of Nina (the excellent Laura Lebron ) to like him, conveys a fine boyish suaveness, and Michelle Rios brings melodious passion to the part of the barrio matriarch, Abuela Claudia. As salon owner Daniela, Scheherazade Quiroga, too, invests a neighborhood mainstay with life-of-the-party zest.
A party is what “In the Heights” strives to be. Salgado’s choreography gives the young, vibrant ensemble at GALA a platform to show off the best dancing in town — some of the best you may ever see in these parts. If we in the peanut gallery had half their energy, we’d be up there dancing, too.
In the Heights music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Allegría Hudes. Directed and choreographed by Luis Salgado. Spanish version by Amaury Sánchez, adapted for GALA Hispanic Theatre by Salgado Productions. Music direction, Walter “Bobby” McCoy; set, Elizabeth J. McFadden; lighting, Christopher Annas-Lee; costumes, Robert Croghan; sound, Roc Lee. With Myriam Gadri, Felix Marchany, Gabriella Perez, Jose F. Capellan, Shadia Fairuz, Rafael Beato. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Tickets, $40-$60. Through May 21 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14 St. NW. Visit galatheatre.org or call 202-234-7174.