FORT WORTH Life in the barrio has a tuneful and exuberant sheen in Artes de la Rosas well-staged production of the Tony-winning show, In the Heights, which opened Friday at the Rose Marine Theater.
This musical, which is receiving its regional premiere in this production, plays out over a few days in the lives of several members of New Yorks predominately Hispanic Washington Heights neighborhood. We come to know Usnavi (Matt Ransdell Jr.v), who runs a convenience store (or bodega, as they call them up there); his troublesome cousin and employee, Sonny (Rashaun Sibley); roving love interests Nina (Lorens Portalatin) and Vanessa (Sarah Dickerson); an Abuelita, (Pilar Ortiz); a grouchy limousine service owner, and Ninas father, Kevin Rosario (Martin Antonio Guerra) ; the fleet-footed graffiti artist, Pete (Michael Anthony Sylvester); and a token white guy, Benny (Joshua Sherman), who works for Kevin, among many, many others in this busy show that boasts a cast of 26.
The relative calm of the neighborhood is disrupted when Nina returns unexpectedly after encountering academic problems while on riding a scholarship at Stanford. There are also a variety of romantic loose ends. Benny loves Nina, but her family wont accept him because he is not Hispanic (yes, West Side Story does get pretty thoroughly turned inside out in this show). Usnavi only has eyes for Vanessa, but he finds he is running in a crowded field.
But none of these problems are so extreme that this crew cannot sing, dance or rap their way through them in this musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics) and Quiara Alegria Hudes (book), which had its Broadway debut in 2008 and garnered Tonys for best musical, score, choreography and orchestrations.
Despite the size and scope of this show, director Adam Adolfo pulls it off in the cozy confines of the Rose Marine. He keeps things rolling at a breathless pace throughout and uses every inch of space in the venue to tell his story.
The big production numbers are especially good, thanks to the excellent choreography by Elise Lavallee. Her plans are imaginative in their design and highly polished in their execution. So the abundant energy that buoys this production overall is most apparent in its dance numbers. Everyone moves well, but Sylvester certainly emerges as first among equals in that category.
There several strong performances. Ransdell takes care of his acting and his rapping extremely well. Sibley is ideally cast as the impish Sonny. And Portalatin, Dickerson and Sherman provide some of the shows best vocal work, in this musical that offers a lot more with its singing and dancing than it does with its plot.
But there are also some weak spots in the production. On opening night, there were a number of problems with the sound. Those can be fixed, but much more problematic is the lighting by Aaron Sanchez and the set design by Sarahi Salazar. The performers often sing, dance or act in deep shadows. The unnecessarily drab look of the show (it is actually a very sunny and optimistic piece, on the whole) is furthered by the set, which has a predominately black color scheme. These visual elements make an already dark and dreary space even moreso.
The use of a nine-piece pit ensemble is a real plus for this show. But, in a few places, some of the players are as overmatched by the shows demanding score as some of the actors are by the script. And the balance of the music and the vocals was something that also needed attention on opening night.
So there are some rough edges. But in a show this size, done by an amateur cast, how could there not be? Artes de la Rosa has done something it should be proud of. The theater has done a good job with a big, challenging musical that speaks directly to its intended core audience.