The best thing about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, In the Heights currently playing at Walnut Street Theatre is the immediacy with which the leading character and narrator (Usnavi) connects with the audience. That connection begins the moment this musical starts, and we are at once enveloped and entranced by Usnavi’s vision of his world and the people who surround him. We learn at once that our leading man is in love with Vanessa who works at the Beauty Salon next door. We know that Nina has flunked out of Stanford University and returned to live with her parents. We discover that Bennie is thrilled at Nina’s return and that Abuela Claudia is like a mother to everyone in the neighborhood. And it is on the strength of all this knowledge that we buy into this double love story in the Barrio. Crafted with a warm and clever book by Pulitzer Prize winner, Quiara Alegria Hudes, the piece hip hops along to the rhythmic riffs of its semi-Rap opening number. But make no mistake – there is enough of a musical assortment here to please every taste – from Salsa (Carnaval del Barrio to Pop (When the Sun Goes Down) to Musical Comedy (Enough).
There are many exceptional voices in this production as well as outstanding actorial performances. Perry Young is exceedingly ingratiating as the shy Usnavi who has a heart full of love for his neighborhood. Julia Hunter excels vocally and dramatically as Nina -- a young woman who has come to a crossroads in her life. Her rendition of Breathe is an exercise in passion and control. Gizel Jimenez is a tiny, little girl with a giant voice and giant eyes that “will send you crashing to the ceiling.” Coming to the Walnut from Broadway and the First National Tour of “In the Heights”, Danny Bolero delivers a powerful performance as Nina’s concerned and loving father, Kevin. His solo number Inùtil (Useless), about his relationship with his father, is quite moving. Kevin’s wife, Camila, portrayed by Kimberly S. Fairbanks is equally as strong in her dramatic number, Enough where she tries to make peace between her husband and her daughter. Rhett George, as Benny, is a powerhouse of vocal strength and emotion. Matthew J. Harris, as Sonny (Usnavi’s not too bright cousin), has the comic timing of a stand-up comedian and the moves of a gangster rapper. And Donnie Hammond sparkles as the sarcastic Daniela, Beauty Salon Owner and gossip monger. But the highlight, for me, was Rayanne Gonzalez as Abuela Claudia, who will rip your heart out when she sings, Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith).
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