Zach’s ‘In the Heights’ is a lively, sizzling start to the summer season

Thanks the world phenomenon that was Hamilton, and an Oscar nomination for his work on Disney’s Moana, Lin-Manuel Miranda has quickly become a household name, but before he was treading the boards as a founding father or singing for the president, he was winning over musicals fans with his vibrant, joyous look at life in the one of the most colorful parts of Manhattan with In the Heights. Zach Theatre is now bringing this hit musical to Austin, with a production that would make Miranda proud, full of fire, passion, and the sweltering heat of the New York summer.

In the Heights follows the lives of those living in New York’s Washington Heights during one of the hottest parts of the summer. We’re first introduced to Bodega owner Usnavi, through whom we meet the myriad figures that call the Heights home, and who take us through one special sweltering New York summer, complete with blackouts, heartbreak, and even violence, but always with the latinx flair this neighborhood is known for. Zach has brought in the big guns to bring their work to life, led by director Michael Balderamma, who cut his teeth as dance captain and original cast member of the original Off-Broadway production, and who has numerous other Broadway hits to his name. He is currently the choreographer for the Chicago production of Hamilton, so having his hand guiding all the action of Zach’s In the Heights is a big win. Helping him along the way is musical director, and two-time Emmy award-winner, Allen Robertson, a mainstay of the Austin musical scene, and a well respected composer and producer in his own right. These two icons come together with a talented team to create a lively, powerful night of theatrical thrills.

The Washington Heights of Miranda’s In the Heights bursts with energy, full of snappy music and quick choreography, and Balderamma and company do their part to keep the action moving. His actors, and even sets, are in contact motion, never hitting a false step, and with blasts of trumpets and the toe-tapping beat of Latin percussion, the skilled orchestra works to keep the scene hopping. The cast do their part to keep the action moving as well, performing with a vibrant zeal that truly adds a soul and spirit to their lively neighborhood. Add it all up with the sunny lighting and the inspired costume choices, and you have one of the hottest shows Zach’s produced in years.

In addition to bringing in some big guns behind the scenes, Zach has called in talent from around the country to fill out its cast. In particular, Alicia Taylor Tomasko shows the skills that made her a New York theatre regular. Here she plays the lovely but harried Vanessa, a woman trying to make her way out of the heights, while always being pulled in by the culture and people of Heights.  It also doesn’t help that she has caught the eye of our protagonist, Usnavi. She’s a woman divided, and Tomasko plays the necessary combination of sassy and strong with aplomb. Her footwork is on point, showing off moves that I’ve rarely seen the likes of on Austin stages, and her voice is clear and strong, with plenty of passion and fire. A good Vanessa is essential to a good production of In the Heights, and the role is in good hands with Tomasko.

Taking on a role made famous by Lin-Manuel Miranda is no mean feat, so Chicago Theatre native Keith Contreras-McDonald had a lot to live up to. Luckily, thanks to his charm and goofiness, he becomes almost instantly endearing. The musical doesn’t give him the standout musical moments of some of his fellow performers, but he carries the piece thanks to his wonderful acting chops. His chemistry with Sarro’s Vanessa is always believable, and, in fact, his relationships with all of the cast is solid throughout. He’s at his best in the small, more emotion-laden moments, helping to sell the stakes and bring the tears in some of the play’s more sombre sequences.

Though the team behind Zach’s In the Heights have brought in several big talents to inhabit their characters, one of the play’s true delights is seeing how many talented locals fill out the cast. For instance, this critic has enjoyed watching actor Vincent Hooper make his way from background player in Summer Stock performances, to the starring on the big stages of Zach Theatre, and here he takes center stage, never feeling out of place among the more seasoned talent.  Indeed, his performance as Benny is one of the most emotionally honest in the piece, as he takes us on one of the most full character arcs in the piece. Whether bringing humor or pathos, Hooper proves himself a capable performer, and is living proof that Austin talent can stand toe-to-toe with the that of New York or Chicago.

A pleasant surprise came from another local performer, and California transplant, Christina Oeschger, who wows from her first notes, showcasing a voice like polished glass: smooth, clear, and full brilliance. She brings out the intelligence of her character,  a bright young girl having trouble facing the world outside Washington Heights, and sells this from her very stance and diction. This is combined with an innocence in her eyes that charms the audience quickly, which is only amplified once she belts her first note, putting her stunning voice on full display. It’s easy to see that there’s a bright future in front of Oeschger, and one hopes she finds herself on other Austin stages again soon.

With a clear vision and exuberant passion, Zach plunges audiences headfirst into the wild world of Washington Heights, given some real gravitas thanks to a game production team and an indefatigable group of talented young actors from around the country. It’s the perfect kind of crowd-pleasing entertainment that makes for a splendid intro to the summer season, that will have you humming the tunes the whole ride home.

In the Heights is playing at Zach’s Topfer Theatre through July 2nd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Zach’s website at zachtheatre.org.

Photo courtesy of Kirk Tuck.

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