Take a pinch of “West Side Story,” add several tablespoons of “Fiddler on the Roof” and stir with large dollops of “Romeo and Juliet” and you have “In the Heights,” the culture clash musical that precedes “Hamilton” in the Lin Manuel-Miranda canon. At the Westport Country Playhouse, the evening is convivial though over-caffeinated, lively though raucous.
At the center of the Tony-winning musical (music and lyrics by Miranda, book by Quiara Alegría Hudes), is the romance between a Latino woman and an African-American man. Naturally, her relatives are against the union.
But there’s a larger canvas here as well. Issues of gentrification and integration infiltrate a show filled with warmth and humor. The lead character, Usnavi (named for the lettering on a battleship) owns a neighborhood bodega abutting tenements, a beauty parlor, a limo agency and a view of the looming George Washington Bridge (all brightly designed by Adam Koch)..
Although a ‘hood where everyone seems to get along (no crime here), troubles creep in. Rents are rising, forcing businesses to relocate, the shortage of funds is a hindrance (a lottery win takes care of that) and the sense of tribal protection is tested by opening up to surrounding cultures.
Director/choreographer Marcos Santana is more successful with the explosive dancing than with the libretto. He doesn’t clarify the lines of development that snake through the evening. Only when we get to the dance near the end of Act One do elements fit. Writing and directing in Act Two are more emotional and less aimless.
Rodolfo Soto charms as the good-natured Usnavi, while Ezequiel Pujols is delightful as his sidekick Sonny. Gerald Caesar and Didi Romero are attractive lovers with strong voices, with Doreen Montalvo and, especially, Tony Chiroldes formidable as Nina’s parents. As Abuela Claudia, everyone’s grandmother, Blanca Camacho lays it on thick.
María-Cristina Fusté’s lighting draws attention to itself, as did the opening night audience which was apparently filled with family and friends of the cast. The orchestra, not to be outdone, heaves mightily. Heavy-handed as those elements are, “In the Heights” retains its joyousness.