Daily Editor Talia Bloom and Staff Writer Emma Burris recently attended a production of In the Heights produced by the Columbia Musical Theatre Society.
The Columbia Musical Theatre Society (CMTS) put on three performances of acclaimed musical In the Heights this past weekend, November 18-20, in Roone Arledge Auditorium. Kambi Gathesha (GS ‘24) directed this production, having only received the rights to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s four-time Tony-winning musical back in July. Naturally, that’s a lot to top with little time. Having already been huge enthusiasts of the musical to begin with, as well as understanding the high caliber of Columbia’s performing arts scene, we went into the opening night performance with excitement and high expectations. Nonetheless, this musical still managed to blow us away.
In the Heights takes place in present-day Washington Heights and follows the lives of the community of 183rd St. The story is told through the eyes of bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (Cenon Caramanzana, CC ‘24) following his friend Nina’s (Gabriela Carttar, BC ‘26) return from college, relationship troubles, and a winning lottery ticket. Having always been the brightest kid, Nina has to take a leave of absence from Stanford, failing her midterms after working two jobs to pay for her books and expenses. She navigates her relationship with her disappointed and angry parents (Adelina Correa, CC ‘23 and Roussel Acosta, CC ‘25) and a budding romance with Benny (Jalen Ford, CC ‘23). We follow Nina and Usnavi’s witty, sharp, and hilarious friends, Daniela (Bailey Stephen, CC ‘25), Carla (Miranda Paiz, BC ‘25), Vanessa (Cameron Herring, BC ‘25), and Sonny (Vincent Snyder, CC ‘24) as they gossip, dance, and celebrate the Fourth of July, navigating a blackout, the brutal summer heat, and financial troubles due to the neighborhood’s gentrification. The community is ultimately brought together as they mourn and remember the universally-cherished Abuela Claudia (Izabella Lizarazo, BC ‘24). This musical successfully addresses complex themes surrounding the urban American immigrant diaspora by highlighting the Rosarios’ financial troubles, the gentrification of the neighborhood and its effect on local businesses, linguistic and cultural disconnections, and generational perspectives on immigration.
This musical was made powerful by Kambi Gathesha’s intentional approach and messages to what he noted was a diverse and multigenerational audience. In both the Director’s Note and remarks following the performance, Gathesha explained how this show tells the story of cast members and their family members, pointing to the power of art that tells the story of Black and brown performers and audiences, as well as the way those in the diaspora are brought together and tell their stories through music, dance, language, and culture.
From the moment we rushed into the auditorium, we were immersed in the vibrant community of Washington Heights. A simple set was framed by the three family businesses: Usnavi’s bodega, Rosario’s Car and Limousine, and the beauty salon. These businesses were adorned with posters, scaffolding, coffee cups, a Black Lives Matter flag, and more details efficiently framing the setting. Before the show had even begun, recorded sounds of the street were being played on the stage. The honking traffic sounds and boisterous children shouting “Nina!” set the stage for the buzzing atmosphere of the barrio. This world was further brought to life by the amazing pit band, conducted by Kelsey Chin (BC ‘22, SIPA ‘23). The keys, brass, woodwinds, percussion, and guitar were absolutely incredible, playing the score’s integration of hip-hop, salsa, merengue, and soul music, and framing the cast’s impressive vocals.
The musical featured showstopping, energetic choreographed numbers balanced with gripping emotional solo performances. The first number, “In the Heights,” was absolutely electric, the character’s entrances met with roaring applause from a lively audience. Nina’s vocals and compelling acting brought us to tears during her numbers “Breathe” and “Everything I Know.” “96,000,” “No Me Diga,” “Blackout,” and “Finale” were other standout numbers—we had full body chills during Blackout’s fireworks. Director/Choreographer Kambi Gathesha, Assistant Choreographer Morgan Johns (GS ‘25), and Salsa choreographers Daniel Garren (CC ‘25) and Bailey Stephen (CC ‘25) did an outstanding job with the choreography of this show, blending dance styles of hip hop, salsa, and more in precise dances bursting with energy and fun.
A standout performance was Caramanzana’s Usnavi, who was a perfect casting choice. Caramanzana understood Usnavi’s quirky, charismatic, and slightly awkward character, and infused his performance with such personality and energy that the whole audience was rooting for him. Caramanzana’s frenetic body language acting incorporated Usnavi’s excited, fidgety movements just like the character we know and love. The emotional core of the show came after Abuela Claudia’s death, when Caramanzana delivered heartbreaking sobs that shook the audience. Lizarazo (Abuela Claudia) was also an audience favorite, managing to belt out powerful notes while simultaneously preserving the frailty of an old woman’s voice. Her hilarity, physical embodiment, and kind, gentle energy were so convincing that it was hard to believe she was a student instead of our dear abuela.
Carttar’s Nina was without a doubt the highlight of the show. Even though she’s only a first-year student, Carttar had the voice and confidence of someone who’s been in the industry for much longer. She perfectly nailed Nina’s brightness and charm, and simultaneous deep inner conflict as she won, broke, and mended the audience’s hearts. It’s evident that Carttar has a bright future ahead of her—within the Columbia theater community and beyond.
Other memorable performances included Ford’s incredible voice and complex acting as Benny and Stephen’s hilarity, dancing, salsa choreography, and voice as Daniela. Vanessa (Herring) and Camila (Correa) had standout vocal performances, nailing the difficult songs of “It Won’t Be Long Now” and “Enough.”
The In the Heights team also took advantage of the creative potential resulting from Columbia’s close proximity to the neighborhood where the very musical takes place. In the back of the auditorium, an art installation by Sam Hyman (CC ’23) took the opportunity to expand on the musical’s themes, weaving in experiences of current residents of the Washington Heights area. Six photographs were displayed, each with its own handheld speaker bursting with vibrant sound bytes and interviews representing the neighborhood in its truest form. We found this installation incredibly meaningful, as it creatively provided real life and modern day context to the characters we watched on stage. The team also managed to highlight the creativity of student artists, such as GS student Mikka Kabugo’s stunning portrait of Abuela Claudia displayed towards the end of the musical, a reveal that brought many audience members to tears.
This musical was absolutely breathtaking, with only a few details taking away from its perfection. One of the major struggles of the opening night show was the effectiveness of the performers’ microphones. Many times throughout the show, the lead and ensemble mics weren’t turned on when necessary, and cut off the first few sentences of the line or lyric. Even though minor sound issues are to be expected, these continuously interrupted the flow of scenes or songs, and brought us out of the world of the show. Additionally, a few details of the scenes following the death of Abuela Claudia marred its emotionality. Sonny’s Derek Jeter Yankees jersey felt slightly out of place, and the migration of the ensemble through the audience during “Alabanza” made for awkward, uneven staging and movement distracting the audience from the emotional climax of the song. Lastly, the time period of the musical was unclear—lyrics included mentions of pagers and the year 1987, while a line described wine as being “vintage 2022.”
Overall, In the Heights was one of the highlights of our semester. Compared to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s seminal and challenging work, CMTS’s production lived up to the immensely high expectations. The musical numbers were so shockingly powerful that they produced shouting applause from the audience. We were both brought to tears multiple times due to both emotional blow and pure rapture. (Combined, we cried during a total of ten songs.) While neither of us can speak on being personally impacted by the themes of the immigrant diaspora, we resonated with the themes of family, loss, and forgiveness. We were honored to have been immersed in the community of Washington Heights, learning the stories of these characters that mirror the lives and experiences of those in our community.
This production was elevated with poignant words from Gathesha and Dramaturg Ellie Houlihan (GS ‘23), who emphasized the complexity of the issues at hand, and the need for ongoing work and change. In his poignant speech following the performance, Gathesha told the audience “There is no reason why In the Heights should be the only show featuring people of color.” He explained how it should not be the burden of people of color to portray their stories, and rather, the “gatekeepers” and those who do not share the experiences must “bear witness, listen, and hold space.” He asserted that these issues start way before the professional level: in friend groups, high school learning, middle school learning, and more. Houlihan addressed the complex positionality of Columbia and Barnard within this production, being comprised of students who benefit from “the past and current forced displacement via the gentrification of Washington Heights, West Harlem, and Manhattanville communities.” She asks how as “card-carrying members of this university,” we can “make art about a pain in which we are complicit?”
These questions and complex issues all point to the need for ongoing work within the Columbia and Barnard community, and the arts community at large. Gathesha concluded his Director’s Note with a powerful statement encapsulating this demand: “Let this show serve as fuel for more work that brings into the fold black and brown student creators; create spaces where students feel emboldened to use their voices; let’s investigate the composition of our own friend groups and student organizations; let’s continue to think critically about our relationship with the greater Harlem community. Let’s keep pushing.”
We are lucky to have experienced this masterpiece of a production: a breathtaking celebration of the love, connection, and joy of the diaspora, and a meaningful reminder of our community’s ongoing need for change and action.
Stage via Staff Writer Emma Burris
Other Images via Olivia Kuan-Romano (BC ‘26)