Sizzling can describe both the weather and the energy in Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights, currently dazzling in a colorful explosion of theater at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Winspear Opera House.
Tracing a period of three days in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, In the Heights is a story with classic themes told and expressed in a very modern way, energized by an exciting combination of Latin-infused hip-hop singing and dancing.
Usnavi (Robert Ramirez, who is the understudy for Perry Young and will play the role for the first week of this Dallas run; Young steps back in March 20) owns a small bodega in the Heights but dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, where his parents had come from. Kevin and Camila Rosario (Benjamin Perez and Celina Clarich Polanco) own a car service. Their daughter Nina (Virginia Cavaliere) is about to return home from her first year at Stanford with some bad news. Benny (Kyle Carter) runs the dispatch for the Rosario's and has a thing for Nina. Vanessa (Presilah Nunez) works at the beauty salon and is the object of Usnavi's affection. And Abuela Claudia (Christina Aranda) is the matriarch of the block as well as Usnavi's guardian.
As with any story worthy of being told, these are not an ordinary three days. Lives change for better and worse, love is lost and found, a lottery is won, a blackout causes rioting and the community suffers a great loss. But what holds them all together is that inexorable sense of community, the love of an extended family that can hold everyone together.
And at the center of all of it is Usnavi, who Ramirez imbues with an infectious earnestness to live life to its fullest. What he learns throughout the course of the show is that one's perception of the fullness of life can sometimes change. And Ramirez reflects this in his passionate portrayal of the genial bodega owner. Reflecting the different musical structure of the show, Ramirez flows between singing and a rhythmic rap, akin to Eminem, flawlessly and fluidly, every word dripping with emotion. He is the endearing Everyman of the show and he wears the role admirably.
The burgeoning love between Cavaliere and Carter is sweet to watch and their respective struggles with school and parents make the audience root for them. Likewise, Nunez's quest to move out of the barrio and downtown is sad but understandable, and she sells her character's overall theme of inner conflict. Stay in the barrio or move downtown, be with Usnavi or not. Every decision she has to combat is reflected in her performance.
In fact, the entire cast is so well-placed in their roles that director/choreographer Michael Balderrama deserves any praise lofted his way.
Speaking of choreography, it might be the best part of the show. Choreography sometimes takes a backseat these days to other aspects of a performance, but is still an important piece of the puzzle. Balderrama's staging, recreated from the original Tony-winning choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler) is exciting. A blending of hip hop, Latin and break dancing, the movement of the characters communicates the story just as much as the dialog at times. It's engrossing to watch and contributes to the boundless energy of the show. An energy that starts in Miranda's carnivalesque, fun music.
While there are plenty of silky sweet solos and duets, the strength of the score lays in the big numbers that involve everyone. Sometimes reminiscent of Rent in its sung dialogue and medleys, the music is just so darn catchy and appealing that it almost acts as the gateway drug for falling in love with this musical. Songs like the opening "In the Heights," "96,000" about the characters' dreams and aspirations, and the rousing "Finale" will shake the core of the soul and stir strong emotions.
The 2008 Tony winner for Best Musical, In the Heights is a blast of a show and a beacon of the ever-evolving face of Broadway. It's a musical for modern times that reflects classic themes of love, relationships, family and community. The music is infectious and will stick in the ears, the dancing is exciting and the performances are engaging and flawless.
This is a highly over-romanticized version of Washington Heights presented by Miranda, who grew up in the rough neighborhood North of Harlem. And it is indeed rough, which is presented in a way via looters during the blackout and Graffiti Pete (Roddy Kennedy), the tagger with a heart of gold. But generally, Miranda, who conceived the musical (the book was written by Quiara Alegria Hudes) has a rather rosy recollection of his neighborhood, as many do of the place where they grew up.
Bottom line, no matter where you're form, everyone should find themselves In the Heights.