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A Highly Entertaining, Energetic 'In the Heights' At Playhouse On Park

They share the same initials, but West Hartford ain’t Washington Heights. I nonetheless expected Playhouse on Park would have a special feel for “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 musical about the vibrant, diverse neighborhood near where he grew up in New York City.

Playhouse on Park knows the importance of community. The theater treats its audiences in a neighborly manner. And because the playhouse stage is a wide, deep, square floor-level arrangement, Playhouse on Park has a special affinity for shows set on city streets. In recent seasons, those have included “Avenue Q,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Hair.”

“In the Heights” can be an ambitious show to produce. Director Sean Harris and choreographer Darlene Zoller (two of Playhouse on Park’s co-founders) have made some smart choices. The cast is not just appropriately ethnically diverse, it’s stylistically diverse. Folks dance differently, rap with different rhythms, scream at each other at different volumes. This adds momentum and variety to the show. So that the movement can be as lively as the speech, there’s a dedicated ensemble of supporting dancers to make sure that scenes set in a dance club or a busy street really kick. The live band (hidden behind the set) is a raging nine-piece pop/soul/funk/hip-hop combo replete with reed instruments, trumpet and trombone.

Having guaranteed that the show will be high-energy, high-kicking and hip-hopping, Harris can concentrate on making sure the show’s story flows smoothly through all its convoluted subplots and that the rapid-fire raps and often heated dialogue is delivered clearly. Diction and enunciation really matter for the central role of Usnavi De La Vega, played on Broadway by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Niko Touros, who bears a passing resemblance to Miranda, is steady, balanced and easily understand, a solid center around which the whirlwind of his friends, neighbors and co-workers revolves.

None of the lead players have worked at Playhouse on Park before, so you don’t have the fun of seeing an actor you recognize trying on a new character or style. But they bond nicely as an ensemble and there are several stand-outs. Stephanie Pope, who performed in several Bob Fosse shows on Broadway (including as Velma Kelly in “Chicago”) plays Camila, whose daughter and husband are much more impulsive than she is — until she finally sings “Enough.” Pope’s performance of that exhilarating, exasperated tune is a showstopper.

The romance between taxi-stand employee Benny (a bouyant Leyland Patrick) and Nina (Analise Rios, staying sweet but never vulnerable) builds nicely, though Benny’s signature song “Benny’s Dispatch” is curiously understaged, keeping him behind a counter at the back of the stage. There’s a similar reticence to cut loose for a few other songs that could use it. On the other hand (or foot, as the case may be), the full-cast dance numbers, especially “The Club” and “Blackout” numbers that end the first act, are major pick-me-ups full of rambunctious energy.

“In the Heights” takes place during a couple of busy days in Washington Heights. Benny and Nina are not the only couple falling in love. Nina’s dad Kevin (JL Rey, suitably gruff and blustery, then just as suitably tenderhearted when required) isn’t the character considering closing his small business. There are awkward confession, lamentable struggles,hook-ups, blackouts, parties and a death. There’s lots of talking and singing about money, by people who don’t have much of it, culminating in the if-I-win-the-lottery dream song “96,000.”

Youthful idealism is the sustaining force of this neighborhood, but this production makes sure that all generations are heard. The younger characters defer with grace with the matriarchal Abuela Claudia (Amy Jo Phillips). The struggles of parenthood are proclaimed credibly by Kevin and Camila without distracting from the coming-of-age plights of their daughter Nina. Usnavi has his own issues — he has a secure job managing a bodega in an area he knows and loves, but maybe he should be chasing his dreams. One of those dreams is to date Vanessa, who works at a nearby salon and is about to be evicted from her apartment. Sophia Introna is adorably down to earth as Vanessa, transmitting just the right sense of world-weariness. It’s nice to see such a solid mix of ages and attitudes onstage, especially for a show that in recent years is often staged at colleges and high schools, where such a range of age and experience is not an option.

“In the Heights” operates at a high pitch. There are explosive arguments. Lovers don’t just sing, they leap about with wild abandon. Jealous rages lead to encounters as fraught as any in “West Side Story.” The music is propulsive, ranging from “Piragua” (entreaties from the operator of a snowcone cart) to the reflective “Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith)" and one of the peppiest opening numbers in recent musical theater history.”

“In the Heights” is a tough, crowded, bustling and energetic show. Playhouse on Park keeps up, and brings it home. High praise.

IN THE HEIGHTS plays through July 29 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m.; with an added Tuesday matinee June 26 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $40; $25 to $35 for students and seniors. 860-523-5900, playhouseonpark.org.

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