By Noah Bennett
Last weekend, entrant theater group Latinx in Theater (LiT) — in collaboration with BLACKstage and the Asian American Theater Project (AATP) — burst onto Stanford’s radar with its first major musical production, “In The Heights.” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical masterpiece, “In The Heights” takes place in the largely immigrant neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City, which is intricately recreated on stage. From your first step into the theater, the superior production value is on full display with a beautifully designed set (by Dan Holland ’19, who is also producer). An entire block at the center of this vibrant community is depicted at once — complete with a bodega, taxi dispatch, salon, dress shop and diner all arranged to make great use of Roble Theater’s deep stage — and each zone is decorated with personal artifacts of the various characters.
When the play’s narrator, Usnavi (Obed de la Cruz ’21), first jumps on stage, donning Miranda’s original guayabera and kangol, the street lights up with activity. The ensemble quickly fills the expansive space. The set pieces come alive with the conversations, stories and personalities of a tight-knit neighborhood under a warm orange sky (our first glimpse at Julian Peña ’18’s expert lighting design). The titular first song launches the play forward with a burst of energy that persists through the entire show. Actors keep up the lively stage pictures and help the audience connect with the particular energy of this community with their animated interactions on the periphery during more comedic scenes, and director Francine Torres cleverly uses the absence of these goings-on to give some of the play’s dramatic moments a lonely, isolated quality.
“In The Heights” follows all the inhabitants of Washington Heights through an eventful summer. We watch as together they endure a power outage, gossip about one another, speculate over which one of them has recently won the lottery and mourn the loss of a leader in their community. The ensemble cast brings together several veteran performers of Stanford’s theater scene with a whole host of fresh faces, sure to be found in more productions soon. Such an across the board enthusiastic and energetic ensemble is hard to come by, let alone one packed with highly talented dancers, such as Morgan Tso (’22) and Izzy Ruiz (‘22), who are eye-catching in every song. They are supported by lively, exciting choreography by Kathryn Radziwonski (’22) that gives each number a unique quality, but still preserves the feeling of a familial unity across the characters and scenes.
At its core, “In The Heights” follows the story of Nina Rosario, played by Danielle Stagger (‘19), who comes back to her family’s home in Washington Heights after dropping out of her freshman year at Stanford. Stagger’s performance is show-stopping. She grounds the show from the moment she steps onstage as Nina, trying to decide how to tell her parents that she — the first in her family to go to college — is coming home to stay. Stagger’s vocal strength shines in her first solo,“Breathe,” in which Nina reflects on feeling separated from her community at home while feeling out of place in Stanford’s culture of privilege. She’s later joined by other incredible vocalists, such as Valentina Ruiz (‘19) (in the role of Vanessa) and Taylor Wright (’21) (in the role of Benny), whose casting is only one example of how this company weaves queer identities into the original story.
In choosing “In The Heights,” LiT brings to the fore both the robust talent of Stanford’s Latinx performers and the important perspective of Stanford’s FLI community. “In The Heights” invites students who experience the same struggles as Nina to celebrate the communities they come from and the challenges they’ve faced to become Stanford students. This production is a shining example of why we seek to welcome unheard voices into the theater community: They bring with them new stories that deserve to be told, and beautiful spectacles to enjoy. With a stunning main stage debut, LiT has changed the landscape of Stanford theater, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.