Rev up the congas and rock the timbales!
“In the Heights” is back, in a Village Theatre outing that unleashes the same brand of joy and sizzle this Tony-winning musical brought to the 5th Avenue Theatre on a 2010-2011 national tour.
This is due, in some part, to several cast members encoring their Broadway and touring stints in this rap and salsa spiced tribute to the culturally diverse Manhattan barrio of Washington Heights.
Perry Young contributes his ingratiating, tongue-twisting turn (you try rapping your dialogue in double time) as the narrator Usnavi, proprietor of a corner bodega inherited from his Dominican parents. Fire-powered singer-actor Kyle Robert Carter encores as Usnavi’s striving black amigo Benny. And Daniel Cruz, a Village Theatre and “Heights” tour alum, crafted the bounty of street-style choreography and plays spray can artist Graffiti Pete.
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But all the cast — local, New York and bicoastal based — rise to the occasion of Eric Ankrim’s vivacious staging, and R.J. Tancioco’s primo musical direction.
Concocted by composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda and playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes, “In the Heights” broke new Broadway ground (and picked up four Tonys) by interweaving rap dialogue with Latin dance and music, in a multicultural book musical of broad appeal.
But at heart, this is an old-school Broadway tuner of the two-romances, musical comedy stripe. One love story unites, with strong vocal and sexual chemistry, Carter’s Benny and Tanesha Ross as Nina, who has disappointed her Puerto Rican family by dropping out of college. Played more for laughs and mixed messages is Usnavi’s shy crush on disheartened hairdresser Vanessa (Naomi Morgan, a fine singer but tentative actor).
Also vintage: the bonds and conflicts between first-generation Americans, eager to bust out of the ’hood, and their more traditional immigrant elders — Nina’s parents (the engaging Pamela Turpen and Jose Gonzales), the corner’s beloved godmother Abuela (soulful, clarion-voiced Corinna Lapid Munter).
A throwback too is the show’s sunny outlook. The urban passions of the signal youth musicals “Rent” and “West Side Story” are clear influences here (check out the fire-escape love duet), as well as the social awareness — in references to economic hardship, and digs at urban gentrification and displacement. (Usnavi correctly forsees a Manhattan only affordable to “hipsters and rich folks”).
But cynicism is absent. And if Act 2 jams in too many cliché plot devices (a death, a blackout, a windfall, etc.), joyous gusto abounds. It’s there in the enjoyable clowning of Justin Huertas, among others, and in the rollicking ensemble numbers: the full-immersion, title-tune opening song, and also “Carnaval del Barrio” (led by zesty Iris Elton, as beauty-shop owner Daniela) and the inevitable nightclub danceathon, “The Club.”
In pop-musical fashion, a lot of dialogue is relayed in Miranda’s spoken-sung couplets and plentiful songs. It can be hard to make out Usnavi’s witty rap commentary; more clarity (or a slower tempo) might help.
But the production is a winner, with kudos also due to Melanie Burgess and Kelly McDonald for their colorful togs, to Tancioco’s hard-driving pit band and to designer Tom Sturge, for conjuring a detailed, lived-in barrio corner, with the George Washington Bridge right where it should be.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org