Recognizing and respecting other cultures is what truly makes America great. Don’t believe me? Check out Muse Machine’s exhilaratingly joyful production of In the Heights, a wonderfully touching, relatable, topical, and tuneful look at the Hispanic experience in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood.
The winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical and the 36th annual Muse student musical, In the Heights, written by Pulitzer Prize winners Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) and Quiara Alegría Hudes (Water by the Spoonful), excellently examines love, fear, financial woes, disillusionment, regret, and hope within a small yet busy block of close-knit family and friends. Dominican Republic native and bodega/convenience store owner Usnavi (Nate Saner), holding down the fort with his cousin Sonny (Chavin Medina) while caring for his Abuela Claudia (Gabby Casto), is the central focal point, propelling the immigrant narrative forward in humorous and insightful ways. Elsewhere, cab company owners Kevin and Camila Rosario (Michael Taylor and Sara LiBrandi) have difficulty coming to terms with the news that their beloved daughter Nina (Julie Murphy) hasn’t adjusted to life at Stanford University. Beautician Daniela (Courtney Collinsworth), Daniela’s assistants Vanessa (Charlotte Kunesh) and Carla (Chynia Crane), Kevin and Camila’s faithful employee and Nina’s love interest Benny (Desmond Kingston), Piragua Guy (Nick Bradley), and Graffiti Pete (Quinn Bennett) along with his trusty sidekick Pete (Darian Watson) also accent the colorful action, occurring over an eventful Fourth of July weekend in 2008.
Under the breezy, thoughtful co-direction of Jeffrey Polk and longtime Muse choreographer Lula Elzy, the winning principal cast and large ensemble supply strong, witty and mature performances. In a striking Muse debut, the charismatic, sensitive Saner delivers a breakthrough portrayal grounded in authority, vulnerability and a specific mastery of Miranda’s hip-hop lyrics in a manner that would make Jay-Z, Kanye West and Twista very proud. Medina, a standout in past seasons with Dare to Defy Productions and Epiphany Lutheran Church, is back in top form yet refreshingly stretching his gifted abilities in a looser fashion to believably interpret Sonny’s street-savvy swag. The endearingly earnest Castro powerfully renders Pacienca y Fe (Patience and Faith), a signature flashback detailing Abuela Claudia’s thought-provoking account of her Cuban immigrant past. Taylor, a memorable Curly in Carroll High School’s Oklahoma! last year, and LiBrandi, whose remarkable 2018 portrayal of Dolly Levi has already gone down in Muse history, are credibly concerned and compatible. LiBrandi especially ignites Act 2 with a fierce rendition of Enough, which finds Camila caught in the middle of the stubbornness between her husband and daughter. Murphy, a tender Laurie in the Human Race Theatre Company’s 2018 production of Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Kingston, seen as Sam in last year’s Muse production of Mamma Mia! offer pleasant vocals, particularly Murphy’s heartrending Everything I Know and their lovely duet When You’re Home. Kunesh, an outstanding Sophie in Mamma Mia!, absolutely dazzles vocally (It Won’t Be Long Now is an early highlight), choreographically (The Club) and in costume (her snazzy collection of Project Runway-esque day and evening wear are courtesy of Nikki Sherck and Alisa Vukasinovich). Collinsworth, receiving fine support from the appropriately ditzy and enjoyably strut-happy Crane, is as delightfully sassy here as she was last year as Tanya in Mamma Mia! Bradley, a vibrant, athletic tenor, brings sunny optimism to the cheery Piragua.
Additionally, Elzy unsurprisingly pulls out the stops as a hip-hop and Latin-infused storyteller. Along with the aforementioned Pacienca y Fe, in which she injects dramatic 1940s scorn into Abuela Claudia’s memories of perseverance, and The Club, a fantastic, character-conscious routine soaring with lively thrills on the level of The Dance At The Gym from West Side Story, her spirited creations of 96,000 and Carnaval del Barrio are flavorful testaments to her diverse expertise in fluidity, movement and rising momentum. In fact, the particularly electrifying, flag-adorning Carnaval del Barrio contains a cavalcade of eye-catching moments, including some cool hip-hop moves performed on the upstage stoop.
The top-notch production team includes producer Douglas Merk (securing the original set design by Anna Louizos), musical director Jeffrey Powell (conducting an impressive 15-piece orchestra), lighting designer John Rensel (bringing beautiful awe to a series of fireworks during Blackout) sound designer Ryan Vallo, property master/rehearsal stage manager Shannon Sellars, production stage manager Morgan Jergens, and artistic consultants G. Armando Silva, Joe Deer, Tyson Randolph, and Lynda Casto.
You will not find this In the Heights ethnically accurate in terms of overall casting. However, the relevancy of its themes, its universal reflections of family, community, legacy, goodwill, and cultural pride wrapped inside the common pursuit of the American Dream, remain terrific hallmarks genuinely stirring the soul.
In the Heights continues through Sunday, Jan. 19 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are 8 p.m. today, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Act One: 70 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Tickets: 27-$65. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit ticketcenterstage.com