“In the Heights” will forever be seen with different eyes than the eyes that watched this modest musical before creator Lin-Manuel Miranda became the most famous person in musical theater. Even if you have not seen his better-known show, you know Miranda did something phenomenal with “Hamilton.”
Where does that leave “In the Heights,” which opened at the St. Paul’s Ordway Center on Friday in a coproduction with Teatro del Pueblo? On one level, it is clearly a young work by a composer and lyricist who would go on to greater things. On the other, it’s a pageant, with quirky and earnest characters jumping up for their performance moment — all within the course of three summer days.
Miranda wrote “In the Heights” as a paean to Washington Heights, the heavily Latino neighborhood where he grew up. He originally played the narrator, Usnavi, who introduces the hood (Anna Louizos’ set has a little “Sesame Street” charm) and runs his little bodega.
Everyone aspires in “The Heights.” Usnavi (Justin Gregory Lopez) wouldn’t mind moving to the Dominican Republic. Nina (Aline Mayagoitia) has spent a year at Stanford University. Her parents (Pedro R. Bayon and Lara Trujillo) have built a cab company. Vanessa (Val Nuccio) wants to move downtown, and her chums at the hair and nails salon (Emily Madigan and Lauren Villegas) are moving to the Bronx and cheaper rent.
Holding the key to happiness and change is Abuela Claudia (Debra Cardona). She reveals her secret in “Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith).”
The Ordway/Teatro del Pueblo production was still a little balky Friday night after a few previews. James Rocco’s choreography is typically aggressive and physical. He knows how to stage a number. The voices are solid, not great. Mayagoitia has the strongest, while Nuccio matches her pipes with a personality that makes Vanessa the most appealing character on stage. She has the hurt vulnerability that defines someone eager to run away. Madigan and Villegas get the fun-girl comic moments, which they savor.
Lopez’s singular flaw is that he isn’t Lin-Manuel Miranda. He blends in with the crowd, never establishing himself as the charismatic host of our visit to the northwest tip of Manhattan Island. He and his cousin Sonny (Fernando Collado) too often seem like castoffs from “West Side Story” or an ABC after-school special about keeping it real on a hot summer day when the power goes out.
Stephen Scott Wormley, on the other hand, has an angular strength and integrity, which he pours into Benny, Nina’s boyfriend. Adan Varela adds color as the operatic guy who sells flavored ice.
Even though “In the Heights” won the Tony for best musical (rightly), Quiara Alegria Hudes’ script has never matched the muscle of Miranda’s music. The book scenes here, directed by Rocco and Alberto Justiniano, can’t overcome the triteness and lack of character development.
It’s no “Hamilton,” but to be fair, it never was. “In the Heights” is a little musical that gave voice to a neighborhood not that often mentioned. It was a passionate “hello” from Washington Heights’ greatest current talent. So. Hello.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.