A power blackout on a steamy July 4th weekend may trigger much of the drama in the Tony-winning musical “In the Heights,” but the show itself creates its own kind of electricity. The infectious rhythms and melodies of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs set toes tapping and bodies swaying, while the people onstage more often dance and shimmy than walk across Anna Louizos’ evocative set of the Washington Heights neighborhood in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge.
The show loses little of its Broadway sizzle in the first national tour, launched at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. The Broadway creative and design team is intact, and a mostly strong cast gives life to the touching and funny characters Miranda created during 10 years of developing the musical.
Kyle Beltran assumes the role Miranda originated of Usnavi, a bodega owner around whom the community of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and other Latinos have built new lives for themselves. Beltran has an engaging manner and an easy way with Miranda’s rap lyrics and often playful melodies, but it takes him a while to fully let loose. He comes off as more of an ensemble member than a leading man, particularly in the first act, and he has little of the force-of-nature charisma and loose-limbed excitement Miranda brought to the role. The actor appears to be still finding his way, though he grows throughout the evening.
But most tour audiences won’t be making the comparison and will likely still find themselves carried along on the show’s good-natured way of telling a largely traditional story about family, community connections and making a better life for your children — all set to a lively, often powerfully touching score.
Beltran is surrounded by a company of performers who draw audiences into their characters and story, from the vibrant and sassy Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer as his would-be girlfriend Vanessa to Arielle Jacobs, who makes Nina the show’s most compelling character. Both have radiant voices that bring power and poignancy to such songs as “When You’re Home,” “It Won’t Be Long Now” and “Breathe.”
Elise Santora is the show’s heart as Abuela Claudia, the grandmotherly figure who raised both Usnavi and his young cousin Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett). She brings a touch of history and nostalgia to the show, notably in her songs “Paciencia y Fe” and “Hundreds of Stories.”
Taylor-Corbett’s Sonny has the exuberance of a boy on the cusp of manhood. There’s fun from David Baida as the wandering Piragua Guy, and a sense of unrepressed joy from Rogelio Douglas Jr. as Nina’s boyfriend, Benny, who is trying to win over her disapproving parents, portrayed with passion and fire by Natalie Toro and Daniel Bolero.
Director Thomas Kail gives the show a strong pulse that keeps it ever moving and building, often from the varied choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, who has his ensemble in nearly perpetual motion. He has them writhing on the streets to “Carnaval del Barrio” or more subtly suggesting days gone by as Abuela Claudia recalls her life in Havana.
Paul Tazewell’s costumes clearly establish a colorful array of characters, and Howell Binkley’s lighting adds to the mood, even during the heightened emotions of the blackout.
Quiara Alegria Hudes’ book occasionally seems overstuffed with plot developments, but captures the kind of spirit and sounds that awaken audiences to new personalities and styles.