On Theater: 'Heights' a delightful production

August 05, 2010|Tom Titus

Take the musical "West Side Story," move it a few miles north and eliminate the Jets, leaving a cast primarily composed of Sharks, replace the gang war conflict with an interracial romance and you're left with something resembling "In the Heights."

This new show, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a winner of four Tony awards two years ago, currently is ensconced at the Orange County Performing Arts Center where a significant share of its audience will speak Spanish — and therefore will enjoy it more than those of us who don't.

The language issue isn't the only bump in the road of this otherwise glorious production. Ensemble vocalizing often becomes fuzzy, a mortal sin in a new musical striving for coherence with first-time audiences.


Nevertheless, "In the Heights" is, overall, an infectious delight. Set in Manhattan's upper Washington Heights section, a onetime melting pot now primarily Latino (Dominicans and Puerto Ricans share the neighborhood), it throbs with familial exuberance.

Its central character Usnavi (named after a naval ship his father saw in the harbor and replaced the Y with an I) is a master rapper who operates a small grocery store and pursues a hairdresser from the shop next door. He's wonderfully portrayed by Joseph Morales whose exhaustive opening-scene patter sets the tone and tempo.

Strongest among a solid cast is Danny Bolero, operator of a limousine service, whose daughter (a lustrous Arielle Jacobs) has just dropped out of Stanford, crushing his dream. On top of that, she's fallen for her dad's black employee (Rogelio Douglas Jr.), which steams Papa even more.

Several performances are memorable among an energetic ensemble, but Elise Santora stands out as Jacobs' loving grandmother whose "Patience and Faith" number is a first-act highlight. Lexi Lawson as the vibrant Vanessa, pursued by Usnavi, also is highly effective, as is Natalie Toro as Bolero's stern wife who blunts her husband's bombast.

Ensemble excellence enriches the production, highlighted by the brilliant choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler and director Thomas Kail's imaginative staging. Anna Louizos' colorful street setting and Paul Tazewell's flashy costumes increase the enjoyment, while the often-wild lighting designs of Howell Binkley punctuate the action with a flourish.

"In the Heights" moves at a fervent pace, and it may take two or more viewings to fully absorb. Overall, it's a rich and exciting experience.

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