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Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - September 20, 2013

Highly original

Heartfelt 'In the Heights' is a rare breed: a new musical not based on a movie

by Chad Jones

Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights" is an exciting piece of musical theater for many reasons, not the least of which is that it feels absolutely contemporary and old-fashioned at the same time. Here's a show that is a rare commodity in American musical theater these days: a wholly original creation not based on a movie or an animated film. How utterly refreshing.

On Broadway in 2008, where it won Tony Awards for best musical and best score, the exuberant musical was a glorious mess in that Miranda's score, infusing hip-hop and rap with salsa, pop and sophisticated musical-theater sounds, was the star, along with the dazzling choreography and lovability of just about everyone on stage. The messiness stemmed primarily from the book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, which tried to cram too many stories into an already overstuffed show and shortchanged character development in favor of sentimentality.

Pretty much all of that is true of the Palo Alto Players' "In the Heights" now at the Lucie Stern Theatre. The best of Miranda's work, from his clever lyrics to his deep wells of feeling for his characters, is on full display, as is some lively choreography by Robyn Tribuzi. The cast is largely appealing and satisfying, with some actors straining to reach the heights Miranda has set for them.

Set in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood with the George Washington Bridge visible in set designer Patrick Klein's gritty, realistic set, the musical tells intertwining stories of friends and families who have complex relationships with each other and their neighborhood.

One of the reasons "In the Heights" is more than just a pleasant song-and-dance fest is that Miranda and Hudes have a keen interest in exploring what it means to have roots in another country — for many in Washington Heights, that means Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic — but to be living fully in this country. It's no accident that the action of the story is set on and around the Fourth of July.

The narrator and ostensible main character is Usnavi De La Vega (Rudy Fuentes), a young man with a facility for rhyme and rhythm whose identity has been shaped by his neighborhood and by the bodega he inherited from his now-deceased parents. He runs the shop with his goofy friend Sonny (Brian Conway) and receives abundant moral support from Abuela Claudia (Linda Piccone), not his real grandmother but essentially the woman who raised him.

Usnavi is in love with Vanessa (Jia Taylor), who works next door in the gossip-filled salon, but she seems to use him just to get her free cinnamon-spiced coffee every morning. Vanessa is desperate to escape the barrio and is trying to make the big move to an apartment downtown.

The one person who actually escaped the Heights is Nina (Alexa Ortega), who scored an impressive scholarship to Stanford. Her parents (Dave Leon and Sasha Motalygo), who run a car service, burst with the pride at the mention of her name, so it's no wonder the recently returned Nina doesn't want to break the news that she has dropped out of school.

As if Nina didn't have drama to deal with, she also has to fall in love with Benny (Dimitri Woods), one of her father's employees.

Throw in a blackout, an impromptu street party and the death of a major character and you've got a full two-and-a-half hours.

Director Alex Perez and his company do an impressive job of locating the heart of "In the Heights," which is, not surprisingly, a reassuring, even inspiring, sense of community and family. This is a special show because it doesn't feel made by committee as so many musicals do these days. As a composer, Miranda is commendably unafraid of melody and showmanship, and you can feel the influence of "Rent" in his score as well as a Sondheim-tinged love for word play that name-drops Cole Porter and Duke Ellington in the first number and later rhymes braggadocio with Pinocchio. Miranda also has the distinction of creating the most insidious musical-theater earworm of the last decade in the impossibly catchy ode to a frozen treat called "Piragua."

Musical director Matthew Mattei and his nine-piece orchestra capture the percussive energy of Miranda's score, and some of the voices on display, especially among the women, are stunning in their ability to straddle the pop music and musical-theater styles the songs demand.

Some of the group numbers, like the opening "In the Heights" and "Carnaval Del Barrio," showcase the sharp dancing of the ensemble, while the abundant ballads, most notably Nina's "Breathe" and the company's touching "Alabanza," connect the show to an older tradition of musical theater where emotion and character development trump popular sounds of the moment.

Ultimately, "In the Heights" is about what so many stories are about: connecting with destiny instead of running from it or trying to force it in a certain direction. Like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," Usnavi and his cohorts have to decide where they belong and if it's true that there's no place like home.

What: "In the Heights," presented by Palo Alto Players

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through Sept. 29, with shows at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Cost: Tickets are $23-$45.

Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.