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Review: Marriott Theatre’s ‘In the Heights’ delivers on this heartwarming musical’s promise

“In the Heights” (3.5 stars)

The venerable Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire has been improving in leaps and bounds this season when it comes to making its in-the-round space, mostly unchanged for decades, more of an immersive experience for the audience. In the case of “In the Heights,” that is achieved though the emotional openness of the performers and jumping musical direction by Ryan T. Nelson but it was also as simple as encouraging audience members to wave flags from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, nations deep in the hearts of the characters in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ebullient 2008 Broadway musical.

I remember first reviewing “In the Heights,” which features a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, on its Broadway opening, well before Miranda wrote “Hamilton,” and thinking how unusual it was to see a musical not so much about the emotional journey of a character as about a place: In this case, the Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, Miranda’s own stomping grounds. That was a political statement in and of itself, of course, given the paucity of prior Broadway shows that paid attention to the far reaches of the 1 train, but Miranda already understood that, No. 1, most all great musicals are works of hope and reconciliation not accusatory judgement and, No. 2, that they build formatively on what has gone before.

“Hamilton” certainly built on “In the Heights” in all kinds of ways and the latter show has become better known since the release of the 2021 movie, which would have done far better had it not been for the pandemic.

You can also see here Miranda’s mastery of the great theatrical truth that the artist in search of universals must focus on specifics (I think he learned that from “Fiddler on the Roof”). As with that masterpiece, Miranda’s show is focused on young people trying to reconcile their love for home with their ambitions beyond its boundaries. Most all of us can relate.

“Hamilton” has a far more sophisticated dramaturgy. (“In the Heights” revolves in part around Nina, played by Addie Morales, who has lost her scholarship at college and yet at no point do any of her supporters do the first thing anyone would do in such circumstances, which is call the school.) But you wouldn’t have had the one without the other. And “In the Heights” has some brilliant examples of musical craft, all of which I marvel at every time I see the show.

This production, directed by James Vásquez and choreographed by William Carlos Angulo, is anchored by Joseph Morales as Usnavi, a character he also played on the national tour, so he knows what he is doing, as does the terrific Paola V. Hernández, who plays Vanessa and has done this show at least twice before.  But they’re surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, including Yasir Muhammad as Benny, Michelle Lauto (who did this show some seven years ago at Porchlight Music Theatre) as Carla, Lillian Castillo as Daniela, and, in a rare but most welcome role in a musical, Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel as Camila.

The company of dancers is small but Angulo still gets a lot done on this small stage, choreographically speaking, and it’s all bursting with life, and superbly executed.  If you’ve seen this show before, I wouldn’t say there is a lot that will be new to you, but it’s a warm-centered production that delivers all that this title promises. And there are some lovely voices to hear sing Miranda’s fabulous score, including Andres J. Deleon, who sings Piragüero, aka the Piragua Guy, quite beautifully. Triumphantly, too.