A Review

Love & Life In The City

By R. J. Donovan

SpeakEasy Stage Company is ending its current season with a beat -- specifically the infectious latin, salsa, hip-hop beat of "In The Heights." (The show won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2008.)

The evening is all about family, home and community. With a score by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by , the story is set in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. The anchor is Usnavi, who owns a small bodega and serves as narrator.

Times are tough here at 181st Street. Money is slim, stores are closing as rents skyrocket, and the July heat is hard to stomach. Yet despite the raw reality of life in the big city, there's a lot of love to be had.

Financial struggle is the common thread. Yet the celebrations flow, whether for a winning lottery ticket, childhood memories, a journey back to a homeland, or just because.

Usnavi (Diego Klock-Perez, center above) lost his parents when he was a boy, leaving him the bodega. He was nurtured along by Claudia, grandmother to the entire neighborhood, even though she's not actually related. Usnavi's cousin Sonny (Jorge Barranco), who has confidence enough for the world, works in the bodega as well.

Meanwhile, Nina's home from college, harboring a secret. Her folks run the local cab company. One of their employees is Benny, a lanky guy who's sweet on Nina. Daniela, owner of the beauty shop, provides advice to anyone who'll listen. Vanessa works at the beauty shop but longs for a life beyond being constantly broke. Add a local graffiti artist, the guy who sells flavored ice from a pushcart, a few assorted locals and you've got a neighborhood.

Most of these folks are introduced through the rhythmic opening number, "In The Heights." Miranda cleverly and effectively weaves their stories together so that by the end of the number, you've got a good grip on all the locals.

While a couple of the musical numbers echo each other, exuberant performances keep everything bright. Santina Umbach, as Nina, conveys the angst of telling her parents she's dropped out of school in "Breathe," the gossipy beauty shop gals (Jasmine Knight, Alessandra Valea, Merissa Haddad with Umbach) are very funny in "No Me Diga," Carolyn Saxon (above, as Claudia) raises the roof with "Paciencia y Fe" (Patience and Faith)," Umbach and Jared Dixon (Benny) sweetly explore a new relationship in "When The Sun Goes Down" (below), and the entire company heats things up with "Carnaval del Barrio."

The press performance was marred slightly by some lighting glitches. A black out occurred about half way through the first act, still the cast soldiered on. Audience members who weren't already familiar with the story were therefore confused when an actual black out was introduced as a crucial plot point at the end of Act One.

Director Paul Daigneault seamlessly blends the many story lines, using an artful eye to give the heartfelt evening a spirited touch. A good number of his cast members are making their SpeakEasy debut. Further, several of them are still students at either Emerson or The Boston Conservatory. They're never anything less than professional, one and all.

Jenna McFarland Lord's set efficiently captures the authentic grittiness of an entire city block in the intimate Roberts Studio Theatre. The choreography, especially fun in "Carnaval del Barrio," is from Larry Sousa.

For this production, the band is perched high above the set, tucked into the top left corner of the theater. They're a lively group, and its hard for them not to occasionally drown out the performers, covering some of the lyrics.

The cast is a genuine ensemble, so it's hard to really single anyone out. However . . . Diego Klock-Perez is an affable brother-to-one-and-all as Usnavi. Merissa Haddad is a hoot as Daniela, the in-your-face owner of the ill-fated salon. (It should be no surprise to learn that Haddad toured with "Jersey Boys" in the gutsy role of Mary Delgado.) Santina Umbach, as noted above, is a sweetheart as Nina, overwhelmed by work and school, afraid of her parents disappointment, but discovering she longs deeply for their support. Anthony Alfaro shines in the small role of the Piragua Guy. And Jared Dixon is particularly good, gently underplaying the role of Benny as the outsider who's still definitely part of the family.

In the end, this upbeat evening of daydreams and hard work delivers a story with a lot of heart. Amidst a lot of heat.

"In The Heights" is in the Roberts Theater at The Calderwood Pavilion through June 30. For information, call 617-933-8600.

-- Production Photos: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

-- OnStage Boston




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