With “In the Heights,” musical theater welcomes a dynamic new talent in Lin-Manuel Miranda. The composer-lyricist-performer’s lovingly drawn portrait of a Hispanic community in upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights began as a student production during his sophomore year at Wesleyan U. The show’s plotlines rehash familiar indie-movie staples of immigrant family experience, but even when it wades through sentimental cliche, this vibrant Latin-beat musical has a sincerity that amplifies its infectious charm. It also scores by keeping its song and dance strengths front and center.
The resume of production team Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller and Jill Furman includes “Rent,” “Avenue Q” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.” That track record raises commercial expectations, not to mention the idea of a Broadway transfer for this ambitiously scaled Off Broadway venture, which has a cast of 20. But first the show must attract young auds, and even more so Latinos, if it is to stake out a niche at heretofore undertrafficked venue 37 Arts.
Despite the invigorating prevalence of hip-hop and rap in Miranda’s songs, there’s more innocence than urban cred here. The book by playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes (“Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue”) is disarmingly sweet-natured — some might say naive — in its depiction of the struggle to make an honest living, carve an identity, find love, remain true to one’s cultural roots and retain family and community unity amid the shifting sands of gentrification.
With its wholesome characters and touching reaffirmation of the value of home, “In the Heights” recalls such Hispanic-themed films as “Raising Victor Vargas” and “Real Women Have Curves” or the family scenes in ABC’s “Ugly Betty.” There may be financial woes, but there’s little evidence of drugs, crime, violence or machismo in this idealized fairy-tale world.
Anna Louizos’ agreeably cluttered, two-tiered set conjures a neighborhood in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, with a fire hydrant on one corner and the 181st Street subway entrance on the other. Downstairs from the jumble of apartments and fire escapes, there’s a hair salon, a car service and a bodega, run by Usnavi (Miranda), named for the U.S. Navy ship his father saw on arrival in the country.
Singing the title song that opens the show, Usnavi observes the sleepy community coming to life on a July 4th weekend morning. We meet his cousin Sonny (Robin De Jesus), a teen desperately cultivating cool home-boy attitude, and their Cuban de facto grandmother, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz).
Then there’s the Puerto Rican couple who run the car company (John Herrera, Priscilla Lopez); their daughter Nina (Mandy Gonzalez), back for summer break from Stanford U.; dispatch worker Benny (Christopher Jackson); and hairstylist Vanessa (Karen Olivo) and her gossiping salon cronies (Andrea Burns, Janet Dacal).
The plot developments are pedestrian but engaging enough. Usnavi tentatively romances Vanessa while he dreams of opening a bar on a beach in the Dominican Republic and she plans her exit on a downtown train. Tender feelings also grow between Nina and Benny despite the objections of her father, who wants to sell the business to keep her in college. Abuela Claudia, meanwhile, gets a $96,000 windfall on a winning Lotto ticket, which may change the future for Usnavi and Sonny.
The show is somewhat overloaded in that virtually all the characters get their own “I want” song and/or a paean to their homeland. But it’s hard to grumble when the music is so fresh and the hard-working cast so delightful. The large ensemble works smoothly together and, some harmless overacting notwithstanding, no one reaches too hungrily for the spotlight.
An appealing performer as well as a gifted songwriter, Miranda deftly blends hip-hop with salsa and merengue, pop and traditional Broadway. With their droll lyrics, syncopated phrasing and smattering of Spanish, the freestyle rap elements are the musical high point.
What’s most refreshing, however, is that for all its eclectic rhythms, “In the Heights” never shrinks away from the corny exuberance of traditional musical theater or tries too hard to be hip.
Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler mirrors the energized score with dancing that runs from contempo urban to languid slo-mo to sexy, sinuous Latin moves. Jason Lyons’ lighting heats up the sultry summer atmosphere and creates some nice mellow nighttime moods.
Director Thomas Kail (who, along with Miranda, comes from hip-hop improv troupe Freestyle Love Supreme) keeps things motoring busily. Some of the transitions between songs feel abrupt, and some numbers are poorly set up, suggesting the musical originally ran longer and has been clipped back to minimize the fragility of the book scenes. But recognizing that the catchy numbers are the principal driving force was the right move for this spirited little show.