Now that composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda has commandeered the attention of the world with his gigantic Broadway hit Hamilton, it seems a good time to revisit his first hit show. And happily, the Beck Center production of his In The Heights is everything you could hope for, carrying this often saccharine-sweet musical over the finish line in a blast of effusive salsa, hip-hop and several kick-ass performances.
Set in a Dominican-American neighborhood in New York City called Washington Heights in the heat of summer, the story swirls around a bodega owned by a bashful young man named Usnavi, a taxi business run by a husband-and-wife team, Kevin and Camila, and a beauty salon where the sassy owner Daniela and her stylists Vanessa and Carla hold court. As we quickly learn from the exposition-laden title song, “Everybody’s got a job/Everybody’s got a dream.”
And while there are ups and downs in this colorful little corner of urban America, the downs don’t stay down for long—because here comes another upbeat and infectious song that makes everyone dance in the streets! Sure, Kevin and Camila’s daughter Nina has dropped out of college. And sure, Benny’s budding romance with Nina is frowned upon by her parents. And yes, Usnavi’s stand-in grandmother Claudia dreams of going home, before those plans are suddenly ended. Even Usnavi’s hyper cousin Sonny is a constant irritant. But the café de leche is sweet and optimism rules the day.
What keeps this all from being too cloying is the pneumatic energy of Miranda’s songs and the electric performances of the cast, many of whom are students at Baldwin Wallace University, under the effusive direction of Victoria Bussert. In the lead role of Usnavi, Ellis C. Dawson III is a big guy with a heart that pumps pure raspberry syrup—the kind that the piragua pushcart guy squirts on snow cones. Dawson provides a strong center for the show to revolve around.
As Claudia, Jessie Cope Miller sings with quiet passion, which is a distinct contrast to Michael Canada’s Sonny, who quivers amusingly like a just-struck tuning fork for much of the proceedings. Also excellent are the sultry Christiana Perrault as Vanessa, strong-voiced Livvy Marcus as Nina, and Isabel Plana as the no-nonsense Daniela. Indeed, there is not a significant off-note struck in the entire cast, even with a few suspiciously white-looking actors taking on some of the Dominican roles.
An important element in this production’s success is Gregory Daniels’ irresistible choreography, made even more appealing since it is executed with laser-like precision by the talented ensemble. And the tight band under the direction of David Pepin keeps the momentum tripping right along.
This is a hopeful play, right down to the plot point involving a lottery winner. Of course, we all know that lottery dreams are the stuff of fantasy for 99.999% of the population. But in this show, hope springs…and raps…eternal.
In The Heights
Through February 28 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.