Story hits home: Characters shine in DePaul Theatre School’s production of ‘In the Heights’

“In the Heights” runs through Oct. 12  on The Theatre School’s intimate Fullerton Stage. (Michael Brosilow / The Theatre School)
“In the Heights” runs through Oct. 12 on The Theatre School’s intimate Fullerton Stage. (Michael Brosilow / The Theatre School)

More than 700 miles separate Chicago and New York City, but the story of a tight-knit community in “In the Heights” hits close to home. Leaving for school, scholarships, grades and trying to find where you fit in are all situations college students can understand and relate to on some level. And with a growing population of more then 3,000 Latino students at DePaul, this show, which originally debuted on Broadway in 2008, is a refreshing choice for The Theatre School’s typical season line-up.

Now, The Theatre School is certainly known for its acting program. But without a musical theater program, the school’s students don’t receive any formal singing or dance education as part of the program at DePaul. The last time DePaul did a main stage musical was in 2012 with “Spring Awakening,” and fortunately “In the Heights” was better by a long shot and quite honestly a pleasant surprise. This may go without saying — but the acting shines above everything else.

When seeing a Broadway production, you expect a focus on the singing and dancing. And at The Theatre School, the focus is clearly on the acting.

Over a three-day period the main story line follows Nina (Krystal Ortiz) as she returns home for the summer after a year on the West coast at Stanford. Ortiz shines in this role with the most believable rendition of her first song “Breathe.” Although Ortiz plays a character essentially the same age as herself, it may not be much of a stretch, but it was a stellar portrayal nothing like any of the equity productions of the show I’ve seen previously.

Wesley Toledo brings energy to Usnavi in “In the Heights.“ (Michael Brosilow / The DePaulia)
Wesley Toledo brings energy to Usnavi in “In the Heights.“ (Michael Brosilow / The Theatre School)

It’s clear how each actor really did their homework. They understand these nuanced characters and bring their own energy instead of just creating carbon copies from the original production. Usnavi (Wesley Toledo) is the fearless narrator and connector of this tight-knit community. Lin-Manual Miranda who wrote the musical and starred as the original Usnavi is most likely engrained in the minds of those familiar with “In the Heights.” But, Toledo brings a youthful energy to the role, not missing one beat with any of the rapping either.

Though the show starts with great energy and a creatively staged opening segment that grabs attention right away. However, the excitement and vocal stamina starts to deteriorate mid-way through act one.

Luckily, I’ve seen this show several times and knew what was happening because serious sound issues probably made it hard for others to understand the lyrics. Although loud at times, the orchestra with several music school students is spot-on, capturing the warm Latin rhythms just like the original.

The ensemble production numbers are where things fall flat. The choreography and stage movement just didn’t live up to the energy of the music and seemed stiff and unnatural taking away from the storytelling. Big production number like “96,000” and “Carnival Del Barrio” didn’t have the same spark as the solo songs and intimate scenes between two characters.

The intimate moments between Toledo and Jeri Marshall, who is charismatic as the charming Aubuela Claudia, are some of the best moments of the show. “Hundreds of Stories,” which is a song that could be easily overlooked in the second act was easily one of the most captivating points of the show, which was beautifully sung as well.

Despite lackluster production numbers, the intimate Fullerton Stage is a great space to let the small scenes and character moments reach the audience.