In the Heights – Review by Brooks Appelbaum

Playhouse on Park is closing its 9th season with a strong production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, “In the Heights,” playing through July 29th. Energy, optimism, electrifying voices, and heartfelt ensemble storytelling dominate the evening. Director Sean Harris has created a marvelous company with only a couple of missteps in casting. He and choreographer Darlene Zoller make the small stage space work for, rather than against, the show by inviting the entire audience into the barrio. Artistically and topically, the message is clear: we are all family.

Miranda wrote the first draft of “In the Heights” in 1999, and it was first produced on Broadway in 2008, where it won four Tony awards, including “Best Musical.” Rather than being dated, however, the story is universal and—if anything— fundamentally old-fashioned: “There’s no place like home.” However, the current inhuman treatment of immigrants has made the piece newly relevant and given it a disturbing edge.

Harris wisely doesn’t push that edge. Instead, he honors Miranda’s intentions (Quiara Alegria Hudes provides the book), focusing on the characters’ moment-to-moment joys and troubles and the danceable blend of salsa, merengue, soul, and hip-hop music.

Two main plots dominate the script. In one, smart and ambitious Nina Rosaria (Analise Rios) returns to the neighborhood from Stanford University: having been overwhelmed by the foreign culture, the multiple jobs she must do to stay afloat, and her academic responsibilities, she has lost her scholarship and dropped out, in shame.

In the second plotline, Usnavi (a winning Niko Touros), the owner of a bodega, who anchors the barrio and guides us, in the audience, through much of the action, dreams of a romance with the sultry man-magnet Vanessa (Sophia Introna, perfectly cast and charismatic); worries about Abuela Claudia (Amy Jo Phillips), who has raised him since his parents’ early death; and frets over money as he struggles to keep his store graffiti-free and profitable.

Running through both these plots is the conflict between staying and leaving, and the pain of prejudice. In addition to Usnavi and Nina, several other characters bring these conflicts skillfully to the fore. Benny is the African-American youth who loves Nina and is shunned by her father because of race; Leyland Patrick imbues the role with strength and poignancy, and his lovely voice makes his ballads and duets memorable. Stephanie Pope gives a show-stopping performance as Camila Rosario, Nina’s mother, singing “Enough” with such power that despite the song’s title you don’t want the number to end.

“In the Heights” has plenty of saucy humor as well, and two actors best capture this tone. Nick Palazzo, as Sonny, has perfect and delightful comic timing. And Sandra Marante as Daniela expertly blends worldly wisdom with snappy wit. Like Stephanie Pope, Marante would stop the show with her amazing vocals on “Carnavale Del Barrio” if the song didn’t quickly move into a rousing company number.

Unfortunately, director Harris has miscast or mis-directed Rios as Nina and JL Rey as Mr. Rosaria. Nina must exude intelligence and let us know, despite her present distressing circumstances, that she is unlike any other young person in the neighborhood. Her parents and her friends all talk about how she has always been whip-smart, hard-working, and determined; Nina cannot be, as she is here, simply a sweet ingénue.
In the same vein, JL Rey is not as dominating and macho as Mr. Rosario must be in order to drive home the painful complexities of his role.

The production as a whole, however, rises above these flaws. Music Director Melanie Guerin controls the vocals and skillful orchestra beautifully so that we hear and understand each word and feel energized, rather than overwhelmed, by the infectious music. Sound Designer Joel Abbott does much to create the ambience of the neighborhood. Aaron Hochheiser has designed evocative lighting (which is key to this show), and Kate Bunce gets the costumes just right. Scenic Designer Emily Nichols works wonders with the space so that each location is easily identified, while leaving plenty of room for dancing.

“In the Heights” ultimately celebrates the dance of the heart, and this production is cause for celebration.

For tickets ($35-50), call the Playhouse on Park, 233 Park Road, West Hartford at 860-523-5900, ext 10 or online at www.PlayhouseonPark.org.
Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., followed by a talk back with the cast. No show on the 4th of July.

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