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In The Heights

The sensational touring production reaches Shea's

To get the main question out of the way: Yes, the national touring company of In the Heights that opened at Shea’s on Tuesday is sensational. The test of a national tour is whether or not it approximates the experience of the Broadway original, and wow, this company does does does! They are fantastic. On top of that, it was wonderful to see a Buffalo audience embrace the incandescence of this delightful show with such warmth and enthusiasm.

And what’s not to like?

In the Heights hit Broadway in 2008 with a resounding and joyful cha-bang-bang-bang, winning Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations. Using all the conventions of the American musical familiar since Show Boat, adorable Lin-Manuel Miranda, still a college student when he began, set the well-worn genre to Latin rhythms, starred in the show himself, and all of New York fell in love.

I first saw In the Heights off-Broadway in 2007 when its youthful creators were just beginning to realize that they had a colossal hit and a cultural phenomenon on their hands. There is nothing especially innovative here; neither is there anything especially challenging. Don’t expect the downer of West Side Story or the angst of Rent. This is a good old-fashioned family show in the style of such American musicals as The Music Man or Hello Dolly! Think Jerry Herman goes Latin and you’ve got the idea.

Over the course of three days in July, the residents of the Washington Heights, living within view of the iconic George Washington Bridge, find their lives challenged, transformed, and finally uplifted.

Usnavi, the owner of the corner bodega (named after the first boat his parents saw when they arrived in America, which actually said “U.S. Navy”) is adored by the neighborhood grandmother who raised him, in love with a girl who is out of his league, and dreams of going to the Dominican Republic. In a rapid series of classic dramatic peripeteia, or reversals, the neighborhood must change—Nina, the hope of the barrio comes home with a secret; a real estate developer wants to buy up the block; someone buys a winning Lotto ticket at his bodega; there’s a power outage at a critical moment—and it’s all set to irresistible music.

Kyle Beltran, who plays Usnavi, is adorable in the unenviable task of filling Lin-Manuel Miranda’s shoes. Equally appealing is handsome Shaun Taylor-Corbett as his cousin Sonny—a boy with unlimited ambition and charm, but no work ethic whatsoever.

Sabrina Sloan, who joins the tour as Usnavi’s love interest, has connections to Western New York. Her mother went to Bennett High School and her father is from Orchard Park. She is delectable as Vanessa. I adore the interactions between Sloan and Taylor-Corbett: “Can your cousin dance?”…“Like a drunk Chita Rivera!”

Arielle Jacobs is delicious as Nina Rosario, who returns from her first year at Stanford with upsetting news. Daniel Bolero gives a wonderfully strong performance as Nina’s father, a man frustrated by his inability to do more for his daughter. Elise Santora is charismatic and endearing as Abuela Claudia.

Praise is due all around—to Rogelio Douglas, Jr. who plays Benny, Nina’s surprise love interest (another reversal); to Isabel Santiago and Genny Lis Padilla, as the gossiping hairdressers; to Jose-Luis Lopez, the Graffiti Guy who is the key figure in the evening’s most uplifting reversal.

Natalie Toro is perfection as Nina’s mother, Camila, a role created by Priscilla Lopez of A Chorus Line fame. (Toro’s Broadway Latin CD is a staple in my home and in my car—I was delighted to buy her new recording in the lobby at Shea’s.)

Even the secondary roles are memorable in this show that celebrates an entire neighborhood—David Baida as the Piragua Guy. Even Sandy Alvarez, the hunky little dancer in the ensemble, who causes havoc by dancing with Vanessa, brings something special to every muscled sinew of his performance—and if you attend In the Heights on Friday, you can take a salsa lesson with him before the show.

The title may be unfamiliar now, but In the Heights is destined to be one of the favorite Broadway shows of your lifetime. The show continues at Shea’s through Sunday. Sabor!