The barrio comes to life on the South Shore in the breakthrough musical by one of the great talents of his generation, Lin-Manuel Miranda. “In the Heights,” the 2008 Tony winner for best musical, introduced a Latin score and rap cadences to a Broadway too often defined by pop and romance conventions.
Miranda, now starring in his latest Broadway sensation, “Hamilton,” wrote his first draft of “Heights” in college. Although it’s more a Valentine to his old neighborhood than a realistic portrait, its vitality is infectious as directed at CM Performing Arts by Michael Mehmet. Moreover, the Noel Ruiz Theatre, named for CM’s late founder, has never looked better.
Joseph Gonzalez, an 18-year-old making his New York-area debut, plays young bodega owner Usnavi, the role Miranda originated. Doubling as narrator, Usnavi, named for his parents’ first sight as American immigrants — a U.S. Navy ship — dreams of returning to his native Dominican Republic. Orphaned in early childhood, he was raised by Abuela (Ariana Valdes), the neighborhood matriarch. Gonzalez sets the tone with the opening hip-hop title number on Jenn Hocker’s uptown set with the George Washington Bridge as a backdrop. Considering that Usnavi chases away a graffiti artist, the street looks more Sesame than any you’d find in the real Washington Heights.
The slender plot revolves around three storefronts — bodega, hair salon and limo/taxi service — on three days and nights around the Fourth of July. Usnavi is in love with beauteous Vanessa (Samantha Rosario), who works for Daniela (Erica Giglio), the gossipy salon owner. “Tell me something I don’t know,” she sings as Nina (Gina Morgigno), daughter of the taxi owner, stops by on her return home from Stanford. She’s dropped out because she can’t afford the tuition. Her father, who says he’ll sell the business to get her back in school, isn’t happy when he learns she’s sleeping with his dispatcher, Benny (Leyland Patrick), who is not Latin.
This talented song-and-dance cast is appropriately, refreshingly diverse. Choreographer M.E. Junge makes each number appear spontaneous, embroidered with costume designer Ronald Green III’s colorful frocks and accompanied by Anthony Brindisi’s boisterous eight-piece orchestra.
CM, reupholstered and freshly painted, now offers table seating. For $40, you get a glass of wine and a tray of assorted cheeses and crackers. On opening night, the theater showed off its good taste — onstage and off.