SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “In The Heights” presents vibrant portrayal of changing neighborhood
Musical with a message plays through June 30 in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts
Susan Saccoccia | 5/29/2013, 5:27 p.m.
Boston Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer and lyricist of the hit musical “In the Heights,” dreamed up the show as a college student. He envisioned a tribute to Washington Heights, an uptown Manhattan enclave populated by families from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Raised nearby, he wanted to portray this tightly knit neighborhood on the verge of change through the rhythms of rap, salsa and meringue.
A decade later, Miranda starred in its Off-Broadway debut as well as its three-year Broadway run, a production that won four Tony Awards in 2008, including Best Musical.
SpeakEasy Stage Company is presenting a lively Boston premiere of “In the Heights” through June 30 in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Although the characters created by playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes border on stereotypes, the actors bring heart and conviction to their roles. They conjure a circle of people whose lifelong ties to one another are about to either unravel or grow stronger over the course of three days.
Neighborhood stalwart Usnavi, the character originally played by Miranda, is the owner of a bodega and the poet of his graffiti-pocked street corner. He is also the shy admirer of Vanessa, who, like most of the characters in the play, inhabits two worlds — the neighborhood and a desired home elsewhere.
Usnavi’s parents named him after the U.S. Navy ship they saw as they sailed into New York from the Dominican Republic, and he dreams of the island they left behind. Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood matriarch who raised Usnavi after his parents died, yearns for her native Cuba. Vanessa seeks to escape her addict mother by securing an apartment of her own in Greenwich Village. Her friend and former employer Daniela is closing her beauty salon and moving to the Bronx. Already starting a new life is Nina, the neighborhood’s star progeny, back from her first year as a scholarship student at Stanford University.
SpeakEasy creative director Paul Daigneault helmed the production and enlisted a talented and energetic 18-member cast. He drew 11 of its singing and dancing actors from Boston Conservatory, where he teaches musical theater and directing.
Lighting by Karen Perlow heightens the story’s varied moods and events — including a blackout and fireworks — and showcases Jenna McFarland Lord’s versatile set, with its storefronts and tenements, stoops and space for the exuberant dance and fight scenes choreographed by Larry Sousa.
Sound designer Eric Norris transmits the crisp musicianship of the eight-member ensemble, conducted by music director Nicholas James Connell. However, on Wednesday evening, some actors’ voices could have used stronger projection.
Elisabetta Polito designed the cast’s colorful summer street wear, well-suited to the story, which unfolds before, during and just after New York’s 4th of July celebration.
The gifted Santina Umbach plays Nina, the Stanford student. Her parents, who own a taxi dispatch service are Kevin, a touching Tony Castellanos, and Camila, the warm Nicole Paloma Sarro.
Nina’s love interest, Benny, is a young black man practically adopted by her parents, who employ him and teach him a bit of Spanish. Actor Jared Dixon does his best with the built-in contradictions of his character, a gentle and optimistic striver who then turns on Nina despite her loyalty to him.
Underscoring the musical’s message that each person matters, everyone on the cast gets a chance to shine. Piragua Guy (Anthony Alfaro) sings an aria while wheeling his cart of flavored ices. Graffiti Pete (Sean Jones) earns Usnavi’s ire by tagging his shop’s grate, but later wins his admiration. Ensemble members Christian Bufford, Sarah Crane, Lauren Csete, Melanie Porras, Chris Ramirez and Adrian Ruz turn the stage into a block party with their nimble dancing.
At first, Diego Klock-Perez is a credible but subdued Usnavi. But he lets his character change in the course of the play. In a charged dance scene, he picks a fight with a competitor for Vanessa’s attentions. And in the production’s finale, as Usnavi finds his voice and recognizes what he’s meant to do, Klock-Perez delivers the news with power in the sing-song poetry of rap. He chants, “Yeah, I’m a streetlight, chillin in the heat. I illuminate the stories of the people in the street.”