Sept. 13--In the Heights, which opened Wednesday at the Walnut Street Theatre, reminds you what theatrical alchemy is supposed to be.
Any Broadway-oriented audience won't know many people like the show's spirited Latino population, living in northern Manhattan's Washington Heights. Lin-Manuel Miranda's well-wrought music is familiar from car radios passing on the street. Laugh lines are lost on those not up on urban patois.
Yet you feel you're with family. The unguarded Latino manner, the informational value of rap music with character expositions, and the general aura of cultural authenticity remove any distance one might have with these characters, who live full, in-the-moment lives despite their financial migraines.
It helps that, along with the music, the direction (Bruce Lumpkin), choreography (Michelle Gaudette), and book (by West Philly native Quiara Alegria Hudes) all conspire to carry the story forward effortlessly.
The plot revolves around a girl who was supposed to make good on a Stanford scholarship, but has come home in disgrace. Small-business owners are having to leave because of encroaching debt and higher rents. A power blackout upends everyone's lives. Just as disruptive is a winning lottery ticket: Good fortune is strange in these parts.
The theatrical sureness of Act I unravels slightly in Act II: Mechanics so artfully hidden previously become more apparent as loose ends are tied up. But in musicals, you always have to take something on faith. And you probably wouldn't notice if the rest of the show didn't feel so true.
As in the Broadway original, sets artfully suggest a transplanted street in Washington Heights. Equally laudable are actors who don't seem to be acting, just living, without the gap that can appear when actors have to give life to characters about whose circumstances they know little.
The plot's central couple, played by Rhett George and Julia Hunter, have the well-limned features of fashion models, but scrupulously maintain their place in the ensemble. In the central role of Usnavi, the bodega owner, Perry Young has the eyes and brow of lifelong dissatisfaction, while his would-be girlfriend (Gizel Jimenez) displays the hair and makeup of someone attempting to fix her insides by sprucing up her outsides.
The beauty-shop owner, Donnie Hammond, is particularly lovable, balancing her truth-telling function in the plot with unconditional benevolence. You could leave envying these lives.
In the Heights
Through Oct. 20 at the Walnut Street Theatre, Ninth and Walnut Streets. Tickets: $10-$95. 215-754-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
Contact David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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