NextStop Theatre’s ‘In the Heights’ is sheer theatrical excellence

There’s a reason the rest of the run is sold out.

In the Heights at NextStop Theatre is one of the most vibrant, engrossing, and well-produced smaller professional theater productions I’ve had the opportunity to see in a long time. It has a cast of performers ideally matched to their respective characters and doing a spectacular job delivering their lines with emotional authenticity, as well as a live band delivering on the narrative’s emphasis on feeling anchored in the Heights. The performance, under the direction of Elena Velasco, is a love letter to a particular Hispanic community that is rooted in the culture of Dominican Americans as well as universal human challenges.

The company of ‘In the Heights.’ Photo courtesy of NextStop Theatre.

Lin-Manuel Miranda debuted In the Heights ten years before Hamilton, and you can see his distinctive style — inspired by Rent — already emerging. He actually created its first draft in his sophomore year of college in 1999. The show tells the story of a young Dominican American woman, Nina Rosario, who has just lost her scholarship at Stanford after having had to work two jobs to pay for her tuition. She is considered the “one who made it out” by her community, and dreads having to break the news of her lost scholarship to her family and friends. She does this while juggling a new relationship with Benny, an employee at her father’s cab company, and a devolving-then-evolving relationship with her parents, who are struggling to keep their business afloat. The show, which won two Tony Awards, including Best Musical, is full of universal themes, at least one of which you will find yourself in.

The music of In the Heights is full of explosive Latin flair, which the NextStop Theatre’s in-house band plays with flair and fluency. When a melody isn’t memorable, a beat or riff in any given moment easily makes up for it by delivering plenty of serotonin to go around. The band, conducted by Jake Null and comprised of a bass, woodwinds, a trumpet, and percussion, adjusts from sounding like an orchestra accompanying a musical theater production to a street band you’d find in Washington Heights at pitch-perfect narrative moments.

In the main roles, Oscar Salvador Jr. is perfect as Usnavi, a seeming Lin-Manuel Miranda self-insert role, with remarkable rapping talent. Ixchel Hernandez is an empathetic Nina, playing an ambassador from the show to the audience in all her relatable challenges: bringing internal strength to her academic struggles, the community leadership role that she seems to have been straddled with, and the conflict between her father and boyfriend. Alex Lopez takes an appropriately stiff approach to portraying Nina’s father Kevin — his performance is delivered in an unexpected style so tonally different that it actually works. His stoic stiffness communicates his fatherly motives, helping the character come into his own in a show that is more focused on its young lovers and cultural bohemians. Kaylen Morgan is also effective in his interpretation of Benny as an everyman, just struggling to get by and profess his genuine love to his girlfriend and grapple over differences with her family as their family-business-employee-turned-son-in-law.

Top: Oscar Salvador Jr. as Usnavi and Cristian Bustillos as Sonny; bottom: Alex Lopez as Kevin, Ixchel Hernandez as Nina, and Kaylen Morgan as Benny in ‘In the Heights.’ Photos courtesy of NextStop Theatre.

Kiana King takes charge of her role as Graffiti Pete, stealing the choreographic scene whenever she’s on stage with fluid, expressive movement that makes her a standout. Similarly, Chris Rios injects even more empathetic pathos into an already emotion-loaded show as the Piragua Guy, whose simple story reflects the economic and cultural challenges of his community and is a beautiful, contained story of wit and triumph.

And perhaps the standout performance of the show is that of Bruni Herring as Abuela Claudia; her stunning vibrato, projection, and emotional nuance are simply extraordinary. You truly feel for her as well as her family when she (spoiler alert) suddenly passes away. Plenty of other numbers received ardent applause, but hers received bravos to boot.

Scenic Designer Mariana C. Fernandez, Scenic Artists Suzy Alden, Sarah Usary, and Tina Thayer, and Lead Electrician Reed Simiele have created a beautiful set for the show’s proceedings, including a splatter-painted background with just enough detail to feel gritty and authentic to New York City streets, with hints of real buildings and doors present in the paintwork, while also feeling stylized and minimalist. Lead Carpenter Tom O’Reilly has created Rent-esque scaffolding adorned with festive lights, from which sections can detach from opposite sides of the stage to bring Nina and Benny together in classic Romeo and Juliet fashion, or West Side Story fashion in terms of NYC scaffolding playing a symbolic role.

The few critiques I have of this production come down to some minor audio issues: occasionally microphones would not be turned on in time for a character’s lines, and sometimes the actors could not be heard over the band. Extra effort by the sound design and mixing team couldn’t hurt.

Seeing NextStop Theatre’s performance of In the Heights was a truly entertaining night at the theater. There’s a reason that the rest of the shows are sold out — but if you’re lucky, per their website, waitlists for standby tickets and unclaimed tickets become available half an hour before curtain time at each remaining performance.

Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours, with one intermission.

In the Heights plays through June 11, 2023, at NextStop Theatre Company, located at 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon, VA. Tickets ($57 including fee), which are now sold out,  were available online or by calling the box office at 703-481-5930.

The program for In the Heights is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are required for all patrons inside the building unless actively eating or drinking. If a patron does not have a mask, disposable masks will be available for any and all guests upon request. Patrons who do not comply with these policies will not be admitted or asked to leave the theater. NextStop’s complete COVID-19 Health & Safety Measures are here.

In the Heights
Music & Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Directed by Elena Velasco


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here