Some musicals need epic scope because they expose a world grander than reality. In The Heights depicts a smaller land, one filled with dreams but not many opportunities. A fragile show, it benefits from Chance Theater's 150-seat venue, where audiences feel not like observers but neighbors. Director Oanh Nguyen has arranged an earnest cast with robust voices.
Usnavi de la Vega (played by Joshua Lopez) owns a bodega in his poor neighborhood of New York City's Washington Heights but imagines returning to the Dominican Republic and opening a bar. He is but one of the residents feeling stuck in this neighborhood. Kevin (played by Tony Sanchez) and his wife, Camila (played by Rachel Oliveros Catalano), struggle to keep their taxi company solvent. Their daughter, Nina (played by Julia Cassandra Smith), fears she's disappointed everyone by losing her scholarship to Stanford because she had to hold down two jobs instead of study. Vanessa (played by Chelsea Baldree) aspires to get her own apartment downtown. Benny (played by Charles McCoy) just wants the respect of his boss, Kevin, and the love of Nina. During the July 4 holiday, a winning lottery ticket and a two-day blackout forces everyone's dramas to a head.
Librettist Quiara Alegría Hudes' characters face issues that are, at their heart, universally identifiable. Songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda's combination of Latin rhythms and hip-hop patter remain fresh five years since winning the Tony Award for Best Musical. Mixing English with Spanish in heartfelt numbers like "Inutil" and "Paciencia Y Fe," the music invite audiences into a world that may be foreign to some, while group numbers like "Carnaval Del Barrio" and "96,000" are spirited reflections of the Latin culture.
Nguyen has built a cohesive cast. They interact as if they had lived on top of one another all their lives. Lopez portrays the central role of Usnavi as a big galoot in matters of love while still being the glue that keeps everyone together. He masters the tongue-twisting rapping and manages to be both hip and goofy simultaneously. Smith, as the adrift Nina, has an arresting singing voice, both powerful and poetic. Candida Orosco is eloquent as the frail but stalwart Abuela Claudia, the barrio's surrogate earth mother. Baldree, who blew the roof off the Chance several years ago as West Side Story's Anita, is saucy as Usnavi's crush Vanessa.
Kelly Todd's dances are based in reality, with moves one would imagine these people using at an everyday street party. Bradley Kaye's set evokes a ghetto Grover's Corner, dilapidated and covered in graffiti, but still instilling a sense of community.
In the Heights is a flavorful musical handled beautifully by a talented cast. Director Nguyen has once again turned the limitations of a confined space into a valuable asset.