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Review: Virginia Rep's "In the Heights"

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical feels more personal though firmly rooted in Broadway tradition.

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Roberto Whitaker and LaWanda S. Raines and ensemble breakdance in Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical, "In the Heights," as staged by Virginia Rep. - AARON SUTTEN
  • Aaron Sutten
  • Roberto Whitaker and LaWanda S. Raines and ensemble breakdance in Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical, "In the Heights," as staged by Virginia Rep.

A funny thing happens when the theater world remembers that hip-hop exists.

Frequently bombastic, full of energy and clever wordplay, the genre born in the South Bronx is a natural fit with the American musical pioneered just a borough away. The connection is one Lin-Manuel Miranda knows well, first with his Tony-winning “In the Heights,” then his historical megahit “Hamilton.”

The latter may have made him a household name, but his earlier work has seen renewed interest since “Hamilton”-mania overtook the nation. And what a musical it is.

Set in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, the show offers a snapshot of an established Latino population as the gears of gentrification are beginning to grind upon it. But this tale is no downer. It’s a vibrant celebration of life and community in the face of extinction.

The story centers on Usnavi (J.J. Caruncho), a bodega owner whose infectious energy and café con leche have made him a mainstay of the neighborhood. Usnavi’s world revolves around taking care of his adopted Abuela (Yvonne Strumecki), looking after his younger cousin Sonny (James Schoppe) and trying to figure out how to woo neighborhood girl, Vanessa (Arielle Jacobs).

Exceptionally staged by Virginia Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, Nathaniel Shaw, this production is firing on all cylinders, charming from the opening title number onward. Anna Louizo’s worn streetscape set is a slightly scaled-down version of the one she created for the original Broadway run, including a blinking George Washington Bridge in the background. And the house band deftly jumps from salsa to hip-hop to Latin pop under Ben Miller’s sterling musical direction.

As Usnavi, Caruncho is energetic and engaging as the slightly spazzy leading man, spitting out Miranda’s clever words with verve. On opening night, it’s occasionally hard to hear the singers over the band -- particularly problematic for Caruncho’s quick lines -- but the problem is ironed out by the evening’s close.

Strumecki is the emotional anchor of both the musical and the neighborhood as Abuela. Her performance of “Paciencia y Fe,” is particularly affecting as it looks back on her journey to the States from Cuba while surrounded by dancers in 1940s garb.

Shea Gomez sings sweetly as Nina, the good student who recently dropped out of Stanford University, and she has natural chemistry with Josh Marin’s charismatic taxi-company employee Benny. James Schoppe imbues Usnavi’s puckish cousin, Sonny, with the right amount of heart and hijinks, and the ensemble does good work with Karla Garcia’s salsa-heavy choreography that’s impressive in company numbers such as “Carnaval del Barrio” and “96,000.”

As much as its subject, music and setting might set it apart, this musical is firmly rooted in Broadway tradition and packed with songs of love and longing. While no one can deny the appeal of “Hamilton,” “Heights” feels more personal, even if it occasionally teeters towards soap opera territory.

My only complaint -- and perhaps it’s more an observation -- is how few of the main characters are played by local actors. This isn’t a ding on Virginia Rep, but a sad reality of how few Latino actors we have in the Richmond area.

This tale of community and connection plays like a jubilant version of “Our Town” with a salsa kick, wowing even as some of its characters set their sights for new places. As this world begins to retreat, an old business sign appears, referring to a time when Washington Heights was inhabited by Irish, Greek and Jewish immigrants. Like its predecessors, this community will make a go of it, wherever they end up.

Virginia Repertory’s “In the Heights” plays through July 30 at the November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. For information, call 282-2620 or visit va-rep.org org.

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