The high-voltage production of the musical “In the Heights,” opening Walnut Street Theatre’s 205th season, is a supersonic trick: It lifts you from your seat in Center City and transports you smack onto the northern tip of Manhattan.
There, in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, you’re in Washington Heights.
This is not the currently gentrified Washington Heights, but the neighborhood just as it was beginning to become a hot property. It’s the hardscrabble, largely Latino Washington Heights, a tight-knit, hand-to-mouth community — a culture that has fit, not always comfortably, into a larger one, changing both. The residents have their everyday fears, their community triumphs and disasters, and an underlying pressure that percolates all day like the popular coffee at a corner bodega owned by a character named Usnavi, whose family left the Dominican Republic for an American life.
Usnavi (pronounced Oos-NAHV-ee, and played with verve and hard-boiled charm by Perry Young) is the focal point of “In the Heights.” He seems very real to me. So does the neighborhood portrait painted by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnetizing score and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ nimble script. I know that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Hudes believes in the reality of that place; she grew up in such a community in West Philadelphia, where people have one another’s backs, and she has strong roots there, still.
From the first seconds of this “In the Heights,” I could tell that the Walnut was about to nail it, straight on. It takes no longer than a few breaths to be swept into the dancing the music inspires – a mix of Latin heat, hip-hop, rap, street moves, sidewalk macho, quick jumps and smooth juts, and also some traditional show choreography. Michelle Gaudette, who choreographs this golden production directed by Walnut veteran Bruce Lumpkin, wastes no time in announcing her agenda: This Washington Heights is a neighborhood defined by the way it moves.
That was true on Broadway and in the national tour, too, and the dancing Gaudette sets on this talented cast is just as infectious – I couldn’t help moving to the rhythm in my seat at the sight of it. Add to that the uniformly strong voices in a show largely laid out in song, and you’ve got a winner. Never mind that some of the Spanish accents are better than others; it’s a minor dent. And don’t expect to catch every single one of the lyrics, which move with the speed of an A-train at rush hour; you couldn’t do that on Broadway, either, and if you want to, you need the cast album.
But you’ll catch plenty, and you’ll never be left in the dark – unlike the cast members, when at one point New York is plummeted into a blackout. “We are powerless, we are powerless!” they sing, and the double meaning makes it one of the most desperate phrases in a modern American musical. (It debuted on Broadway in 2008 and won the best-musical Tony Award.)
The weakness of “In the Heights” is the way the story wraps itself up too neatly and too rapidly, and with unchecked sentimentality. But the Walnut production makes up for it with unbridled exuberance in every show-stopper and high-level craft in everything else, including Anna Louizos’ Washington Heights set, Ed Chapman’s crisp sound design, Paul Black’s evocative lighting and the music direction by Douglass G. Lutz.
This is a big-deal production, with a cast that throws itself into the moment: In addition to the winning Perry Young in the lead, Julia Hunter as the girl who’s gone off to college and returned; Kimberly S. Fairbanks and Danny Bolero as her parents and the owners of a car pickup service, and Rayanne Gonzales as the cherished abuela, the older woman who keeps traditional values in place. Rhett George plays the black non-Latino who may forever be an outsider; Gizel Jimenez is the girl who desperately wants to move downtown and Matthew J. Harris is a constant hip-hopping presence everyone knows. Ceasar F. Barajas, playing a spray painter, Carlos Lopez as the water-ice man, and two beauty-shop gals, Maria Konstantinidis and Donnie Hammond, also get their days in the hot Manhattan sun. Add another eight performers — the dance ensemble – and the production’s complete.
“In the Heights” is the story of new roots, of becoming an American hybrid, of changing America’s national face. In that, it is a quintessential American musical. In the end – and this production shows it so well – we are anything but powerless.
“In the Heights” runs through Oct. 20 at the Walnut Street Theatre, on Walnut near Ninth Street, 215-574-3550.