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Next month's Triangle visit by the national touring company of Hamilton has long been sold out, but Lin-Manuel Miranda, the multiple-award-winning creator of that phenomenon, had a previous Broadway hit, In the Heights. North Carolina Theatre is currently staging a production with a first-rate cast and enough energy to supply power for Memorial Auditorium on its own. This 2008 Tony-winner for Best Musical serves as a fine introduction to Miranda's many talents and, for some, it will have an even broader appeal than Hamilton.
The show takes place in present-day Manhattan in the Washington Heights neighborhood around the George Washington Bridge. For some decades, the population there has mainly been immigrants from the Dominican Republic. One resident, Usnavi, runs a little bodega but dreams of returning to his homeland once he's saved enough money. He and many of his neighbors have been watched over by Abuela Claudia, who's been like a grandmother to them all.
The neighborhood includes Usnavi's cousin Sonny, who works in the bodega; Nina, the first in the neighborhood to go to college; Benny, who works at Nina's father's and mother's taxi company; Daniela, the gossipy beauty salon owner; and Vanessa, Daniela's fiercely independent employee who longs to leave the neighborhood for a better life.
Two romantic complications drive the plot. Usnavi has a secret crush on Vanessa, but he hasn't had the nerve to tell her. Benny has declared himself to Nina, but her parents don't accept him because he's not Dominican. Financial woes also affect the main characters: Nina has dropped out of Stanford because she lacks tuition funds, Vanessa can't afford to move away yet, and Abuela Claudia can't afford her blood pressure medicine. All dream of winning the lottery, and when one of them does, it changes everything.
Miranda's songs range from rap and hip-hop to salsa and Latin pop, with clever lyrics and toe-tapping rhythms that make it hard not to dance in the aisles. Although few numbers are individually memorable, the collective effect is a big welcome to a neighborhood party. Indeed, that is what the script does best, providing colorful characters interacting as they go about their daily lives.
The several plot strands in Quiara Alegria Hudes' script don't have much momentum or depth, but director Michael Balderrama's nigh-perfect casting and nearly non-stop choreography make up for it. His participation in the original Broadway cast and, later, his work as director and/or choreographer for the show's national tours, inform this production through his laudable precision and verve.
Andres Quintero made an extremely likeable Usnavi, playing the character's shyness around Vanessa with humor and his friendships among the neighborhood with sensitivity. Quintero impressed mightily with his performance of the rap numbers, enunciating the densely packed lyrics clearly and with meaningful emphasis. Melanie Sierra's Vanessa made an intriguing foil for Usnavi, her cool exterior masking her vulnerability and indecision.
Nick Sanchez as Benny and Cristina Sastre as Nina provided the strongest dramatic moments, each defying Nina's parents' expectations of their place in the scheme of things. Their several soaring duets were production highlights. Danny Bolero as Nina's father, Kevin, and Carly Prentis Jones as her mother, Camilla, made believable parents, each singing moving solos expressing their sacrifices and their frustrations.
Three other cast members became audience favorites with their engaging characterizations. Genny Lis Padilla's Daniela got consistent laughs with her sharp tongue and no-nonsense responses. Reed LoRenzo Shannon's cheeky, quick-witted Sonny was endearing, while Nicole Paloma Sarro's Abuela Claudia sent out one giant hug to the audience, leaving few with dry eyes as she sang of her difficult life.
Director Balderrama arrayed his cast over every inch of Adam Koch and Steven Royal's extremely detailed set; its realistic storefronts with metal security rollups and appropriate interiors were further enhanced by apartment stoops, second floor windows, and fire escapes. Samuel Rushen's lighting expertly signaled dawn, dusk, and the heat of the day, along with a believable fireworks display, complete with authentic pops and cracks from Eric Alexander Collins' sound design. LeGrand Smith's costumes seemed right off the streets, colorful and comfortable.
Music director James Cunningham kept the orchestra snappily upbeat, the irresistible rhythms providing the show's engine. In a number of cases, the fast-paced rap lyrics would have been more easily heard if the orchestra had not been so loudly projected through the huge speakers hanging over the stage.
Despite the quibbles about the script, the show is easily recommended for its cast, invigorating music and astute staging. And the show's overriding theme of community support has never been more relevant.
In the Heights continues through Sunday, October 21. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.