In the Heights, national tour

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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In the Heights

The national touring cast of “In the Heights,” with Kyle Beltran (center, in maroon shirt).
Photo by Joan Marcus

Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
National tour
Curran Theater, San Francisco
May 12-June 13, 2010

It simmers with salsa, vibrates with hip-hop and rattles with rap. But “In the Heights,” 2008 Tony winner for Best Musical, really is an old-fashioned love story plus a paean to families and a neighborhood in decline. It also holds up a mirror to the immigrant experience with its attendant successes and failures: the homesickness, the discrimination and attempts at assimilation. Best of all, it is a high-energy delight, from beginning to end, with only a little bit of sag in the middle.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes have written a show for our times, where upward mobility meets financial distress, “family values” fall prey to intrusion from other, less familiar families. Centering on two couples: the young bodega operator Usnavi who dreams of a long-lost Dominican beach, played by the engaging Kyle Beltran, and the sexy hairdresser Vanessa (Sabrina Sloan), who only wants to move uptown; and pretty young Nina (Arielle Jacobs), who has made an ignominious retreat from Stanford and fallen in love with an African-American limo driver (Rogelio Douglas, Jr.), who works for her dad. Add to that the hottest Fourth of July weekend you can imagine, a power failure and a $96,000 winning lottery ticket and you about have it.

There are some powerhouse ensemble numbers – notably the eponymous opener and a sizzling “Carnaval de Barrio” – and some hot salsa dancing, but the memorable moments are individual. Everybody, from the guy who sells piragua (flavored ices, as far as I could tell) from a cart, to the gossipy beauty salon owner, gets their moment to shine. Usnavi (and the origin of his name is one of the funniest moments in the show) lives with his adored abuela (a terrific Elise Santora), the neighborhood wise woman, who looks like a little old lady until she opens her mouth to belt out her big number, a complaint about the heat and a hymn to her homeland at once. Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett), the young cousin who helps out in the grocery store, provides a lot of the humor. Nina’s parents (Daniel Bolero and Natalie Toro), are a portrait of the long-married couple, disillusioned but still in love, and totally focused on the success of their child. Even Graffiti Pete (Jose-Luis Lopez), a minor but ultimately important character, gets his chance.  

Anna Louizos’ set design is a stage miracle of see-through tenements rising above colorful storefronts with the George Washington Bridge looming on the horizon. Howell Binkley’s lighting design encompasses sunrises, sunsets, blackouts and everything in between. Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography rocks and Paul Tazewell’s colorful costumes are right on. “In the Heights” soars on a wave of its own energy. Catch it.

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