Lin-Manuel Miranda is enjoying more than a moment right now with his musical Hamilton, for which tickets are notoriously hard to come by. Fortunately, Musical Theatre West is presenting In the Heights, Miranda’s earlier, Tony Award-winning musical, offering rap-inflected songs tinged with Spanish and energetic choreography that convey the dreams and disappointments of a close-knit urban community.
Set in the primarily Latino-American Washington Heights barrio of New York City, the story follows characters who live and work on one city block– think Sesame Street, only bigger– with storefronts, tenement fire escapes and a roving piragua shaved-ice vendor (E.J. Cardona, who steals every scene he’s in). The George Washington Bridge soars above the buildings onstage, visually echoing the characters’ aspirations.
Usnavi (Perry Young), who runs the local corner store, introduces us to the neighborhood by singing “In the Heights” at sunrise on a July 3rd. We soon meet his grandmother, Abuela Claudia (Candida Celaya), all the women of the hair salon, including the beautiful Vanessa (Teresa Castillo), and the Rosarios (Elvira Barjua and Mario Rocha), who run a car-dispatch service.
Their daughter, Nina Rosario (Alyssa Gomez), has returned home from her first year at Stanford with less than stellar news she can’t talk about, except with Benny (Carleton Bluford), who works for the Rosarios but is treated coldly by Nina’s father because he’s not of their culture.
The structure of the play, written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, is more a tapestry of these characters’ stories than a single narrative arc. Each has a struggle to resolve, leading to a lack of focus on any single character, but instead an overall sense of how members of this community depend on each other.
After a surprising lottery win, a July 4th power blackout that causes everyone to feel “powerless” in more ways than one, and trials with family and love, Usnavi ultimately realizes that it’s the community’s disparate stories that give it value.
Along the way, songs (music and lyrics by Miranda) and choreography by Hector Guerrero convey an enthusiasm that is hard not to become immersed in. Dennis Castellano directs a lively orchestra, and Benjamin Perez directs the very talented and impressively large 25-member ensemble cast on stage.
With its whirling dance and soaring voices singing Miranda’s poignant but playful rhymes, you’ll find In the Heights irresistible. It’s an American immigrant story in a very different sense than Hamilton, one that reaches us in the communities where we live and dream.
Musical Theatre West’s In the Heights continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton Street, through Nov. 5, with performances Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm, and Sundays at 1pm & 6pm. Tickets are $22 to $157. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 856-1999 x4 or visit musical.org.