Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

In the Heights
Boston Opera House

Also see Matthew's review of review of Gatz

In the third month of what is surely to be a very long and successful tour, In the Heights is bringin' it; bringin' its hot Latin vibes, steamy dances and heartwarming family stories to break up the winter doldrums and melt the ice around the Boston Opera House. A good old-fashioned Broadway musical dressed in colorful ethnic clothing and propelled by hip-hop rhythms, Heights excels in every element of musical theatre and achieves the important goal of entertaining a diverse audience. Anyone who is interested in or concerned about the future of live theatre can take heart from the enthusiastic response generated by this refreshing show.

Since opening off-Broadway in February 2007 and transferring a revised version to Broadway in March 2008, In the Heights has grown in stature and garnered a slew of honors and awards, including four 2008 Tony Awards (Best Musical, Original Score, Choreography and Orchestrations) and the 2008 Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. The national tour, which launched this past October and presently lists dates through August, plays Beantown through January 24th.

Conceived by composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights introduces us to the sights, sounds and stories of Washington Heights, an upper-Manhattan community of multiple generation immigrants from numerous Latin cultures. As Tevye in Fiddler on The Roof did before him, Miranda's alter ego Usnavi (Kyle Beltran) serves as narrator and tour guide in this enclave, inviting us to meet the people who mean something to him and who strive to make their lives mean something. Its themes may not be new, but they are represented here by new voices that remind us that hopes, dreams and the importance of family and home are universal, regardless of native tongue.

Before the show even starts, the atmosphere is created by Anna Louizos' amazing set, with the towering George Washington Bridge and the New York City skyline beckoning in the background, and the gritty tenements and storefronts capturing our attention at eye level. Usnavi's bodega is center stage, the physical focal point of the neighborhood and the emotional heart of the community. In the opening number, the residents stroll and dance to a lively, pulsing beat, the proprietors roll up the gates protecting their shops, and typical daily activities ensue as folks stop in for their morning coffee from the bodega. Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora) is everybody's grandmother, Carla (Genny Lis Padilla) and Daniela (Isabel Santiago) supply the news/gossip from the salon, Kevin (Daniel Bolero) and Camila (Natalie Toro) run the auto service with help from Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.), and the Piragua Guy (David Baida) plies his confections from a pushcart. The other principals include Usnavi's young cousin Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett) who helps out in the store and Graffiti Pete (Jose-Luis Lopez) who stealthily decorates the environs by dark of night.

Standing out from the crowd are the two key female characters, Vanessa (Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer), who wants to escape the barrio, and Nina (Arielle Jacobs), whose feelings about returning from college in California are a mix of wanting to be home and not wanting to be a disappointment. For me, the dichotomy that they represent is the true center of the book and everything else branches out from them. In a cast with dazzling vocal talent across the board, Gonzalez-Nacer and Jacobs stand out in this category as well. Douglas and Jacobs blend their voices beautifully and create some heat as lovers, eliciting appreciative murmurs from the audience. Belying the delicate characterization of Abuela, Santora belts out her anthem "Paciencia y Fe" ("Patience and Faith"), but she appears under age for the part. The rest of the roles are remarkably well cast as the entire ensemble could have been plucked from 181st Street.

One indication of the potency of In the Heights is that it succeeds without the presence of the multi-faceted Miranda as Usnavi. Can you imagine Rocky without Sylvester Stallone or 700 Sundays without Billy Crystal? Beltran comfortably takes on the persona and adjusts the cap to his own style, and he dedicates his performance to his abuelas. The book by Quiara Alegria Hudes is fairly simple and character driven, but the combination of an exhilarating score, dynamic lyrics and exuberant dancing provides a solid foundation for each new ensemble to build upon. In addition, the musicians under Conductor Justin Mendoza and the production values for the tour are first-rate and will make you think you're sitting in a Broadway theatre. Special kudos for the fireworks sound and light effects at the end of act one.

A decade beyond the germinating of its first seeds at Wesleyan University and nearly two years after its Broadway debut, it is clear that In the Heights "has legs," as they say. In the midst of winter, in a long-term down economy and less than perfect world, it is uplifting and life affirming. It talks about hope, dreams, community and the inevitability of change. It also serves as Exhibit A that even the unlikeliest of dreams can come true in the world of musical theatre.

In the Heights Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda Directed by Thomas Kail, Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, Music Direction by Justin Mendoza, Set Design by Anna Louizos, Costume Design by Paul Tazewell, Lighting Design by Howell Binkley, Sound Design by Acme Sound Partners, Production Stage Manager Marian Dewitt, Stage Manager Katrina Stevens

Performances through January 24th at Boston Opera House. Tickets through, Ticketmaster 800-982-2787, Ticketmaster outlets, and box office at Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street, Boston (M-Sa, 10 am - 6 pm).

- Nancy Grossman

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