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Stage Review

The pulse of a N.Y. neighborhood in ‘In the Heights’

Alessandra Valea (center) as Vanessa in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “In the Heights.”

Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Alessandra Valea (center) as Vanessa in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “In the Heights.”

‘In the Heights” refers to an exhilarated state of mind as well as a vibrant city neighborhood. For the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s current production, a vivacious ensemble creates a community of absolutely irresistible characters, capturing all the life and energy of this Tony Award-winning musical.

There’s a formulaic framework to the storytelling of this show, conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is also its composer and lyricist. But that’s simply a device to ease our entry into a hardscrabble pocket of Washington Heights, in northern Manhattan, where Spanish is spoken and the rhythms of Latin music echo through the streets. Fueled by seductive salsa, samba, and merengue, Miranda and book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes weave a tale of love and loss about people who feel a combination of affection and embarrassment for the place they call home.

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Diego Klock-Perez is terrific as Usnavi, the young proprietor of the local bodega who serves as our narrator and guide. Klock-Perez kicks off the evening with a high-octane number that starts as an informative and wonderfully poetic rap, and builds into an expansive production number. Usnavi is part of the neighborhood’s younger generation, feeling trapped, eager to move on, while the older folks, like Abuela Claudia (the vocally stunning Carolyn Saxon) and Kevin and Camila Rosario (Tony Castellanos and Nicole Paloma Sarro) view the Heights as a dream fulfilled.

Conflict comes in the realization that Nina (Santina Umbach), the Rosarios’ Stanford University undergraduate daughter, has been struggling to live up to her family’s expectations and falls in love with one of her parents’ star employees, Benny (Jared Dixon). Meanwhile, Usnavi nurses a crush on Vanessa (Alessandra Valea), a hairdresser so focused on moving away that she can’t see his love for her. But the plot complications primarily serve to introduce us to the wonderfully quirky characters who are part of this neighborhood family.

Director Paul Daigneault has gathered a cast of Boston Conservatory students and experienced professionals, who challenge each other to exceed expectations. Saxon brings down the house with her stirring “Paciencia y Fe,” Valea’s “It Won’t Be Long Now” aches with longing, and Umbach and Dixon deliver an appealing “When You’re Home.” But even though the leads get the spotlight, Daigneault’s ensemble is so solid that several secondary characters are also standouts, including Jorge Barranco as Usnavi’s feisty younger cousin Sonny, Merissa Haddad as Daniela, the manager of the local salon and gossip center, and Anthony Alfaro as the Piragua Guy.

Daigneault takes advantage of every inch of Jenna McFarland Lord’s inviting set, always moving the performers with a sense of the musical backbeat, while Karen Perlow’s lighting provides exactly the right emotional accents.

Larry Sousa’s inspired choreography highlights individual abilities without ever distracting from the overall impact of dances that combine jaw-dropping athletic prowess with balletic grace. Whether punctuating a dramatic moment or creating the feeling of busy street life in a club or outdoors, this ensemble dazzles with impeccable form and fluid strength. The eight-piece orchestra, led by Nicholas James Connell, lends excellent support.

“In the Heights” is a musical tribute to family and home that will send you out of the theater dancing.

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.
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