"In the Heights" arrives in Seattle on tour with a splendid cast, and its street-smart humor, sentimental soul and fiery dancing intact.


Something old and something new, something sweet and something picante — “In the Heights” opens the 5th Avenue Theatre’s 2010-11 season with a vivacious bang.

This Tony Award-winning Broadway musical first devised by Lin-Manuel Miranda arrives on tour with a splendid cast, and its street-smart humor, sentimental soul and fiery dancing intact.

What’s familiar here is a plot edging on soap opera, and fairly generic stage pop ballads. But what’s fresh is the energy, wit and pride radiating from the first Broadway tuner to celebrate modern Hispanic-American culture in all its vibrancy and aspiration.

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It is also novel in artfully weaving (G-rated) rap-style lyrics and Latin rhythms through an entire score.

Though it occasionally calls to mind “Rent” or “West Side Story,” earlier youth musicals rooted in Manhattan, “In the Heights” is more upbeat, less tragic.

The likable Usnavi (excellent Joseph Morales), a young Dominican-American bodega (corner store) owner, beckons us onto his Washington Heights block with a witty rap tour in a rousing opening number (“In the Heights”) that introduces all the major characters.

They include the chief clown, Usnavi’s puckish cousin Sonny; Abuela Claudia, the much-loved neighborhood matriarch, who raised Usnavi; and Vanessa, the pretty beautician Usnavi shyly pines for.

Miranda’s score and the show’s book (by Quiara Alegría Hudes) provide dramatic dilemmas aplenty — mostly about college dropout Nina, her hardworking parents and Nina’s feisty African-American beau, Benny.

The plot is rudimentary: Romances flicker and flare. A business is failing, a loved one is lost. Most compelling are the drive of immigrant parents to make their offspring’s life better than their own and the conflict over staying or leaving a crumbling district on the brink of gentrification.

These difficulties feel authentic and fairly raw within the slick sphere of Broadway.

But what makes “In the Heights” hit the heights is its abundance of exhilarating ensemble numbers — which convey the sense of a close-knit, zestful community.

Miranda’s music, with its Latin beat and contrapuntal layering of Spanish and English, rap and song is robustly sung by one and all. (Arielle Jacobs as Nina and Rogelio Douglas Jr. as Benny are especially strong.)

And the Tony-honored choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler is invaluable. It inventively, exuberantly merges everyday strolling and strutting, hip-hop, Capoeira and break dance, salsa and cha cha, and iconic show dance.

One exciting number, “96000,” has the whole block shaking a leg, as neighbors imagine hitting the lottery. “The Club/Fireworks,” is a sizzling salsa/ merengue display that turns into a brawl. “Carnaval del Barrio” is a gloriously gratuitous street rave.

Be advised: the rap lyrics are delivered at presto pace (and with great dexterity by Morales). Don’t expect to make them all out in one hearing. As for hearing: the overly loud and strident volume needs adjusting, pronto.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com