Finding Your Island

'In the Heights- provides a funhouse-mirror reflection of Spokane.

In the Heights is about people who live far away, look different and have nothing whatever to do with us.

See, they’re store owners, retirees, middle-class families.

Kids going off to college. Young men getting and losing their first jobs.

They fall in love, provide for their children, help their neighbors, throw parties.

So, yeah, nothing like you and me, right? Filled with pop, hip-hop and salsa tunes, In the Heights is a musical about a Latino neighborhood at the north end of Manhattan.

There’s the guy who runs the local bodega, the women who gossip at the beauty shop, the matriarch, the family working hard to send a daughter to college. As the central narrator-figure, Usnavi sings near the top of the show, “Everybody’s stressed, yes,/ But they press through the mess,/ Bounce checks/ And wonder what’s next.” In other words, show-creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s characters — immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Chile, Cuba and Puerto Rico — have a great deal in common with America’s middle class. (Much better dancers, though. Which is good: It’s a dance-heavy show.)

Actually, those national distinctions aren’t crucial. Christina Aranda — who plays the role of Abuela Claudia, the grandmother to the entire neighborhood — says that all the characters are “dealing with mixing Country X with America. You know, people come to America every day. And they struggle with the same issues: Do I teach my kids English, or just Spanish? Do I try to be completely American or be from both [cultures]?” Aranda especially liked one playgoer’s reaction to her performance: “‘That is exactly what my grandma said — and she came here from Poland.’ It’s neat to hear that,” says Aranda, a native of Houston. “Everybody’s who’s in America came here from somewhere else.”

In her big solo, “Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith),” Aranda sings about how Claudia left Cuba as a child, then struggled for decades as a housecleaner, “Polishing with pride,/ Scrubbing the whole of the Upper East Side.” Arrayed behind her, dancers accentuate the 1940s settings of sultry Havana and snowbound “Nueva York.”

One of the ensemble members, Chloe Campbell, explains that during a song like “Paciencia,” which is about the drudgery of hard work, the dancers’ heads are all angled downward.

Conversely, for a song like “96,000,” which has people dreaming about winning the lottery, chins point skyward. And in Andy Blankenbuehler’s Tony Award-winning choreography, Campbell says, “Nothing ever really faces the front. Which is pretty big, because in musical theater, you’re usually told to face front and smile at the audience.”

But instead of relating to the audience in that presentational kind of way, the dancers of In the Heights “are there to heighten the emotions of the characters,” Campbell says.

There aren’t any of those big, traditional Broadway dance extravaganzas: “The dancing comes out of nowhere,” she says. “We’re just moving along naturally, and then, before you know it, it’s a song-and-dance number.”

In one of those songs, “Hundreds of Stories,” Claudia and Usnavi “dream of the seaside air,” both of them hoping to find a Caribbean island of happiness and joy. While some of the show’s characters find their happy place right there on 181st Street, others become disillusioned and choose to leave the neighborhood.

“The show’s been criticized by those who say it’s not gritty enough, that it doesn’t reflect the violence of a neighborhood like Washington Heights,” Aranda says. “But hoping for that is a way of playing into stereotypes. Just because it’s not gritty and violent doesn’t mean it’s not Hispanic.”

Family, tradition, a dream of a better life — that’s what’s Hispanic in the Heights

In the Heights • Thurs, April 12, at 7:30 pm; Fri, April 13, at 8 pm; Sat, April 14, at 2 pm and 8 pm; Sun, April 15, at 1:30 pm and 6:30 pm $38-$84; $25, students • INB Center • 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. • • (800) 325-SEAT

Follow the River: Portraits of the Columbia Plateau @ Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art WSU

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.