From the show's opening moments, as Usnavi sets the scene in the mostly rapped title song, you know you're in good hands. Bleu has a commanding presence, a winning smile, and a thoroughly likable persona. His crisp diction allows him to wrap his mouth around Miranda's intricate rhymes with ease, and he has great chemistry with his co-stars, particularly the terrific Christopher Jackson as Usnavi's best friend, Benny; Olga Merediz as the beloved Abuela Claudia; and Marcy Harriell as Usnavi's love interest, Vanessa.
Harriell, who is also relatively new to the company, is fantastic as Vanessa, exuding confidence and sex appeal. Also making a favorable impression is Janet Dacal, who originated the fairly minor role of Carla in the musical, but who has now come back to play Nina, the girl who escaped the barrio to attend Stanford University, but who has now returned after dropping out of school. Dacal invests her part with just the right combination of sweetness, frustration, independence, and self-pity, and is particularly moving in the song, "Everything I Know," late in the second act.
Other replacement cast members include David del Rio as Usnavi's cousin, Sonny, who has some funny moments, but could use a bit more charm, and Rick Negron as Nina's father Kevin, who does what he can with one of the more flatly written parts in the show. Several of the original Broadway cast members remain, including Jackson and Merediz, the latter of whom now seems to be pushing a little hard in her first act scenes, but still knocks her big solo, "Paciencia y Fe" out of the ballpark. Priscilla Lopez, who plays Nina's mother Camila, remains a strong if underutilized presence.
The plot holes in Quiara Alegria Hudes' book -- most noticeably a suitcase full of money that the winner of a lottery was somehow able to get a bank to give to her in cash -- remain, but Miranda's excellent score, Thomas Kail's crisp direction, and Andy Blankenbuehler's vibrant choreography cover up some of the more obvious flaws. And with Bleu's performance adding fresh energy to the production, the musical is a definite crowd-pleaser.
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