News Column

'Heights' transports you to New York neighborhood

May 18, 2013

YellowBrix

May 18--BOSTON -- SpeakEasy Stage Company's "In the Heights" so convincingly envelops the audience in a corner of a not-so-long-ago Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City that it might take a minute to get your bearings when you leave Boston Center for the Arts and find yourself in the South End.

The sense of elsewhere is due in part to Jenna McFarland Lord's scenic design, which renders a street fronted by a bodega (convenience store), a taxi office, a hair salon and an apartment building with exacting detail. Realistically lettered business and city signs extend to the walls around the audience, while second-story windows on the set are covered with graffiti-inspired artwork that contribute both color and a city flavor to the surroundings. Karen Perlow's lighting design and Eric Norris' sound design, including traffic sounds before the show and during intermission, do much to enhance the atmosphere.

What particularly makes the stage feel so believably like a neighborhood, though, is how director Paul Daigneault and his cast have brought such a warmth and easiness to the characters who people it. In this 2008 Tony Award winner for best musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda, with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, offered a slice of life never seen on a musical stage: Families who emigrated from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico and have made a life in New York, but are still struggling to fulfill their dreams.

That sense of home and family, whether related by blood or not, and of knowing people and a place your whole life is palpable from these actors, a combination of professionals and very talented Boston Conservatory students. Nina, vulnerably played by Santina Umbach with a delicate soprano, returns home as the pride of the street. Her brains took her to Stanford, but she is back during a blistering July 4 and finds that she, her neighborhood and the people who have made her who she is are all in transition.

The fine-tuned ensemble create people who are trying to follow their dreams near and far -- a business of their own, an apartment downtown, a vacation, a romance -- while loving, fighting with, teasing or confiding in the people who have made up their everyday world.

A lot of the story and characterization is told through Nicholas James Connell's driving musical direction of Miranda's unusual score. It combines more typical musical-style yearning ballads with rap music, much of which is terrifically and often comically delivered by Diego Klock-Perez's lovable narrator Usnavi. Much of the easiness and camaraderie between him and the others in the neighborhood is conveyed, too, through Larry Sousa's exuberant choreography. While the ballads are beautifully sung by these actors -- especially Jared Dixon's wannabe businessman Benny, Alessandra Valea's restless Vanessa and Carolyn Saxon's sweet Abuela Claudia -- the ensemble numbers like the opening and "96,000" are the knockouts because of the sheer energy and hip hop/salsa rhythms of the group dancing.

SpeakEasy's show is the first area staging of "In the Heights" by a regional company, and as good as the musical was on national tour, the more intimate size of the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion is a better venue to experience this show. Feeling a part of this neighborhood is key to appreciating the show's vibrant personalities and message as well as to understanding its often rapid-fire lyrics. The SpeakEasy run has been extended through June 16, and the high demand for a ticket to this end-of-season production is warranted.

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(c)2013 the Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, Mass.)

Visit the Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, Mass.) at www.capecodonline.com

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