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‘In the Heights’ Calls for Quadruple Threats

The cast of San Diego Musical Theatre’s production dances, sings, acts, and raps—and in fluent Spanish, no less
Ken Jacques

By Dan Letchworth

In the Heights - cast

The cast of In the Heights by San Diego Musical Theatre

Ken Jacques

Director Carlos Mendoza has done In the Heights at five different theaters now, and the most important thing he’s learned is that its namesake opening number has to be perfect. “If you don’t understand those first 10 minutes, you’re not gonna get the rest of the show,” he says.

In it, Dominican-born bodega owner Usnavi takes the audience on a whirlwind tour of his neighborhood, uptown Manhattan’s Washington Heights, introducing practically every character: the abuela who raised him, a Cuban immigrant; his crush, who dreams of moving downtown to the Village; the Rosarios, whose daughter is home from Stanford but unsure whether she’ll return; even the unnamed Puerto Rican shaved-ice vendor.

So to nail that song, you have to find the right Usnavi. “He’s our storyteller, and you have to love him,” Mendoza says. “There’s got to be something innately wonderful and cute about him that makes him stand out; that’s why the neighborhood loves him.” And he must be a quadruple threat—who can not only act, dance, and sing, but rap.

Luckily, finding those quadruple threats is a little easier now than it was when In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first show, premiered in 2005. It and Hamilton both paved the way for hip-hop’s widespread adoption into the musical theater canon.

Mendoza says that when most theater companies cast the show, they get nervous about having enough Latinx actors audition. But for his current production at the San Diego Musical Theatre stage in Kearny Mesa, “it was surprising how many Latinx artists came out. We don’t usually see that. Our show is almost fully Hispanic.” A wide variety of backgrounds are represented: Colombian, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Salvadoran, African American. “I love to be able to cast a show where you see what our world really looks like.”

Mendoza also reunited with choreographer Laurie Muñiz, whom he’d previously staged this show with at Vista’s Moonlight Theatre in 2017. Ultimately, they found the perfect Usnavi in another familiar face from back then: Sebastian Montenegro. Last time around, Montenegro played a smaller role, Graffiti Pete—this time he went straight for the lead.

In the Heights - 2

Sebastian Montenegro (center) in In the Heights by San Diego Musical Theatre

Ken Jacques

Everyone in the cast speaks fluent Spanish, which was a critical point in auditions. “Nothing hurts more than going to see In the Heights and hearing the Spanish butchered,” Mendoza says. Although most of the show is in English, the frequent Spanish that’s mixed in “really gives you a look at what life is like as a Latino in this country.”

Mendoza himself was born in the US and raised in Colombia; he learned Spanish first, but when his family moved back, his mother always told him to speak English outside the home. “In my house, sometimes we start in English and go to Spanish, or sometimes you speak Spanish and English together.”

Which begins to raise the question: Why not try doing In the Heights entirely in Spanish? Lin-Manuel Miranda signed off on an all-Spanish version that debuted at Washington, DC’s GALA Hispanic Theatre the same year as the Moonlight production.

Mendoza says he’d love to tackle that challenge someday, to reach even more people. Because even though the story takes place on the East Coast, in a primarily Dominican neighborhood, its themes are universal. “The show reminds us that family is more than blood,” he says. “It speaks to community and it speaks to family. I think it doesn’t matter what culture you are, it will speak to you.”

In the Heights runs through June 5 at the San Diego Musical Theatre stage in Kearny Mesa. Tickets at

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