Lin-Manuel Miranda's 'In the Heights' kicks off Ordway's season with energetic rhapsody

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Debra Cardona and Justin Gregory Lopez. Rich Ryan

When In the Heights hit Broadway in 2008, Lin-Manuel Miranda wasn't yet LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, transformative visionary and creator of what Michelle Obama would call the "best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life."

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Today, it's impossible not to view In the Heights through the prism of Hamilton, not to see this enjoyable show as a harbinger of epochal greatness to come.

Musical theater conventions are so hidebound that it still feels amazingly fresh to watch the character Usnavi step onto a Washington Heights street and start rapping, the rhymes flowing naturally and casually. Miranda's gift as a composer and lyricist is to create disarmingly accessible songs that thrill the ear with unexpected stylistic switch-ups. The songs from In the Heights don't thrum with the urgency of Miranda's Hamilton music, but they showcase Miranda's warm, playful side to highly endearing effect.

Endearing is a good word to describe the new production of In the Heights created by the Ordway, in its second major collaboration with Teatro del Pueblo. The first was this spring's West Side Story, another immigrant saga set in New York. There's more local talent involved with In the Heights, and in this show the Ordway Music Theater stage pulses with life in a way it didn't for the moodily melodramatic Bernstein classic.

In the Heights almost feels like it could be a "West Side of St. Paul" story, as immigrant families reckon with generational change and the mixed blessings of gentrification. The amiable Usnavi (Justin Gregory Lopez) runs a bodega and nurses a crush on Vanessa (Val Nuccio), a stylist at a neighboring salon. A second star-crossed love story plays out between taxicab dispatcher Benny (Stephen Scott Wormley) and Nina (Aline Mayagoitia), his employers' daughter.

The Ordway's James A. Rocco and Teatro's Alberto Justiniano co-directed this production, and they've succeeded in capturing the warm sense of community that keeps the characters coming back to their neighborhood even when they have opportunities elsewhere. As with West Side Story, the big dance numbers really pop, exciting the audience in a way that touring Broadway productions rarely manage. There are no faceless ensemble members; wherever you look, you find personality.

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Fernando Collado and Justin Gregory Lopez. Rich Ryan

Still, the show sometimes struggles to hit its marks. The unassuming Lopez doesn't articulate his lyrics with the clarity and richness required to really draw us in. Lauren Villegas and Emily Madigan land some solid one-liners as gossipy salon staffers, but their comic timing is often just a beat too slow. When soloists sing in counterpoint (which happens often), the sound mix tends to compress their parts into a mush.

That clears the field for Mayagoitia and Wormley, who shine in their affectionate shared scenes, to steal the show with their easy chemistry in fun numbers like "Benny's Dispatch" and hopeful ballads like "Sunrise." In the end, the youthful energy of Miranda's inspired music and this charismatic cast make In the Heights a welcome jolt of vigor for this new theatrical season.
 


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