In the Heights   ★★★★½ |  Raleigh Little Theatre  |  Run extended, through June 26

Patrick Torres knew he was witnessing a cultural hinge moment, one night in June 2008, as he watched In The Heights sweep the Tony Awards, taking four awards—first for best orchestration, then best choreography, then best score, and finally, best musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking musical fused hip-hop lyrics and salsa with more conventional Broadway song forms, as it probed the stories of three generations of Latinx emigrants in the tightly knit neighborhood where the composer grew up, in north Manhattan’s Washington Heights.

“I remember being emotionally overwhelmed that a musical featuring people that looked like me was on Broadway,” Torres recalls. He also sensed a dawning opportunity for change in an art form that historically had mainly reflected the concerns and sensibilities of the dominant culture. “It was just this moment, seeing—‘Oh, it can be different,’” he says. “And I really hadn’t thought about that before.”

Six years later, after being named Raleigh Little Theatre’s artistic director in 2014, Torres knew he wanted to stage Miranda’s optimistic drama here.

He also knew that he and his company were nowhere nearly ready to do so. Having just moved from Austin, Torres would have to connect and develop his own relationships with the Triangle’s Latinx community. And Raleigh Little Theatre, which had never staged work by a Latinx playwright in its first 80 years, would have to have a reckoning with its own past.

“We’re all very proud of our history as a company,” Torres says. “But we also had to be willing to say our history has largely existed in white culture. We knew there had to be a moment where there’s an intentional invitation, an intentional opening up—saying we recognize these are the stories we’ve been telling, and we want to tell new and different stories.”

The community theater would also have to reexamine and redefine its relationships with communities in the area it had historically ignored.

“We had to internally be ready to invite a cast predominantly of people of color into an organization,” Torres notes. “They had to feel safe, to be able to be vulnerable and do all the things it takes to put on a play.”

Initiatives in diversity, equity, and inclusion, including adoption of the Chicago Theatre Standards, had to be created to make policies that would allow people of color “to come here and feel like they can be who they are. If we’re going to put a show onstage that is celebrating this culture, the people putting that onstage have to feel the organization has their back.”

That would also involve forging deep partnerships with local Latinx community advocacy group El Pueblo.

“Oftentimes, arts groups say they want to work with the Latino community, and say, ‘Here’s some tickets,’” executive director Iliana Santillán says. “But the way RLT has developed this partnership really speaks to their core values.”

“They chose a show that goes beyond the surface cultural aspects of Latinas,” Santillán says. “They took a deep dive into understanding and listening to how interconnected we all are.”

Members of the group helped translate audition notices and spread the word throughout the Latinx community.

“We couldn’t have done that on our own,” Torres says.

Nicholas Claudio’s energy and optimism radiate from the Sutton Theatre stage as he syncopates protagonist Usnavi’s tricky hip-hop lyrics, flinging out rhymes in the show’s opening number: “Practically everybody’s stressed, yes! / But they press through the mess / bounce checks and wonder what’s next.”

After acting in shows ranging from Agamemnon and Little Shop of Horrors to The Little Mermaid and The Secret Garden, the up-and-coming 28-year-old actor, a recent Chicago transplant, says, “I can’t even think of one named Latinx person in any of those shows.”

“I’m not some little Yorkshire boy from the hillsides of England,” Claudio says. “I’m a Nuyorican: half Polish Ukrainian, half Afro-Latino. My mother grew up in Brooklyn; my father grew up in Queens. And I don’t often act roles that are this personal to me.”

Carolina Kavanaugh’s work as Camila, mother of struggling student Nina, is equally polished, despite it being her first time onstage.

“The cast and crew is such a pinnacle of what I believe community theater is,” Torres says, “folks that have done it forever, right alongside people in their very first play. That’s what community theater should do, because then they get to create a community and learn from one another.”

Cristina Duchesne-Rivera sparkles as love interest Vanessa, and Tippy Thornton brings authority and heart to the neighborhood’s abuela, Claudia. In their midst, Gabriel Cortez’s stand-out solo turns give grace and gravitas to the community’s Piragua Guy, alongside arresting cameos by Ryan Vasconcellos, Mairym Azcona, and Davyous Melvin.

As Michael Santangelo’s band and James and Peiwei Cobo’s culturally accurate choreography builds to a fever pitch in “Carnaval del Barrio,” it hits you: the diversity on stage also extends to body types not often seen in musicals.

“Often, if you watch Telemundo or ABC, you see this personification of Latinx community members who are very thin,” Santillán says. “To see people of different colors in different shapes and sizes, dancing and enjoying—that’s really meaningful.”

In a work whose rare energies have made this RLT’s strongest show since the pandemic, the neighborhood onstage is looking a lot more like our own. It’s about time.

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