The musical chronicles the lives of a tight-knit, mostly Latino community in Washington Heights. Sparks plays Nina, the daughter of Kevin and Camila Rosario (Rick Negron and Priscilla Lopez, respectively), who has returned to the neighborhood after making a go of it at Stanford University -- and failing. She's lost her academic scholarship and is ready to quit school, much to her parents' dismay.
Sparks knows how to put across a song, and sounds great doing it. Her voice quavers with emotion in certain moments, while at others she's able to belt the notes to the rafters in a joyous explosion of sound. However, she seems less sure of herself when not singing. She stands awkwardly, and Nina's romance with Benny (Clifton Oliver) suffers from a lack of chemistry between the two performers.
The other main storyline in the musical follows Usnavi, the owner of a local grocery. Originally played by the show's composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and more recently by High School Musical star Corbin Bleu, the pivotal role is now filled by Kyle Beltran, who joins the Broadway cast after playing the role in the musical's national tour. The actor has an appropriately geeky charm, but he's nowhere near as charismatic as his Broadway predecessors, and not as sharp in delivering the verbal gymnastics of Usnavi's complicated rhythms and rhymes.
It's now some of the supporting roles that shine the brightest. Shaun Taylor-Corbett is terrific as Usnavi's younger cousin Sonny, mining the humor of the script without losing sight of the character's passion. Interestingly, Miranda seems to have tweaked the lyrics of Sonny's passage in the song, "96,000" which now references Arizona's controversial immigration law in a brief yet potent manner.
Jon Rua, as Sonny's friend Grafitti Pete, also makes a strong impression, particularly in his interpretation of Andy Blankenbuehler's hyperkinetic choreography. He moves with a sharp precision and a buoyant energy that is lacking in the lead roles. Other standouts include Lopez, Andrea Burns as salon owner Daniela, and Eliseo Roman, who continues to elicit laughter and applause in the relatively minor role of the Piragua Guy.
The current draw for the show, of course, is Sparks. And it's possible that she can continue to grow into her role. Her performance demonstrates a certain amount of promise, even if it does not yet have the kind of Broadway star quality one may have hoped for.
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