Mandy Gonzalez and Christopher Jackson
in In the Heights
(© Joan Marcus)
Mandy Gonzalez and Christopher Jackson
in In the Heights
(© Joan Marcus)
The sensational new musical In the Heights may not please everyone, but plenty of people are going to leave Off-Broadway's newish 37 Arts theater with words like "exuberant" and "exciting" coming out of their mouths -- even if they have never been to Upper Manhattan.

The title of the show, which features a score by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, refers to Washington Heights, the contemporary New York City barrio where plenty of Latin-Americans live, work, love, and dream. We are introduced to a tight-knit community of Heights' residents going about their business on designer Anna Louizos' stunning set, consisting of aging tenements and crumbling storefronts with a view of the George Washington Bridge in the background. The bridge not only establishes the musical's location, it also represents the gateway to the other America that exists beyond Nueva York.

The show's narrator, if there can be said to be one, is Usnavi (Miranda), a bodega owner who's struggling to get by. But the main story centers on the middle-aged, middle-class couple Kevin and Camila (John Herrera and Priscilla Lopez), who own the local car service. Their daughter Nina (Mandy Gonzalez) has just returned from her first year at Stanford; scholarships are not enough to bridge the financial gap, so she has decided to quit college rather than see her parents bankrupt themselves for her sake.

Also figuring into the mix are Abuelo Claduia (Olga Merediz), the woman who raised Usnavi after the death of his parents; Vanessa (Karen Olivo), an apprentice beautician who is desperate to get out of the neighborhood; her spunky boss, Daniela (Andrea Burns); and Benny (Christopher Jackson), a shy young man who has worked for Nina's parents for years yet isn't deemed by them good enough to be her boyfriend.

Early on, you will think you've got the plot all figured out, but the show takes a more truthful turn than you might have imagined. Still, the book is the least of this musical's gifts; In the Heights might benefit if the story were a bit darker. Miranda's music is flavorful, sometimes even powerful, and his lyrics are a triumph; not only do they drive the story and establish and develop character, they also represent a magnificent blend of people's poetry and the dynamic essence of musical theater.

As for the choreography, it almost literally jumps for joy: Andy Blankenbuehler's work provided pretty much the only spark in last season's disappointing Burleigh Grime$, and In the Heights establishes him as the brightest new choreographer on this side of the Hudson. Thanks to Thomas Kail's taut direction, the show's movement, staging, and dance seem all of a piece with the vibrant cascade of characters in this melting-pot story.

Best of all, the performances given by the talented cast members are breathtaking. Miranda is a knockout; Gonzalez and Jackson are immensely appealing; Olivo sings and dances like a dream; Robin De Jesus plays Usnavi's young cousin, Sonny, with scene-stealing aplomb; and it's always great to hear Burns sing. Among the hard-working ensemble, Seth Stewart is a standout as Graffiti Pete. But it's Merediz who unexpectedly stops the show with her first-act song "Pacienca Y Fe" -- a truly exhilarating moment.

Though In the Heights and Spring Awakening are wildly different from each other in tone and style, they both suggest that the musical theater is finally embracing the energy and talent of today's youth to create shows that are fresh and bold.