Before the award-winning pop culture phenomenon that is “Hamilton,” writer/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda had already taken the Broadway world by storm with his first Tony-winning musical, “In the Heights.”
With music and lyrics by Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, the show tells the story of a group of diverse, multicultural neighbors living and working on the same block in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. What the show was most notable for, though, was its mix of musical styles — hip-hop, salsa, meringue — to create a sound that was new to the Broadway stage, a sound that Miranda would later expand even further with “Hamilton.”
Thanks in part to the success of “Hamilton,” “In the Heights” has had a popular resurgence at regional theaters, and Austin’s Zach Theatre has just mounted its own production, running through July 2. To make sure their version stays in keeping with the energy of the show’s Broadway run, Zach has brought in director/choreographer Michael Balderrama, who was a cast member in that original run and served as the resident director/choreographer for its national tour. Zach and Balderrama even utilize scenic designer Anna Louizos’ original set, which cleverly re-creates the various storefronts and apartments of an entire Manhattan block without overcrowding the stage.
It’s very clear from watching this production of “In the Heights” that the director is a choreographer, as the characters’ movements and dances reveal as much of their inner life as the script and lyrics do. Hudes’ book is, in some ways, the weakest part of the show, as it hews to highly traditional notions of family and community, and so the added layer of characterization embedded within the choreography makes for a stronger presentation of the musical as a whole.
Of course, inventive, engaging choreography and a dynamic score mixing a variety of musical styles can’t succeed without a cast that can pull them off, and the cast of “In the Heights” — mixing local talent with performers from out of town (some of whom have been a part of the show’s national tour) — keeps the show’s energy running high from beginning to end.
Keith Contreras-McDonald is given the difficult task of re-creating Usnavi, a role made famous by Miranda himself, and he pulls it off with boyish charm and innocence, particularly in his relationships with his younger cousin Sonny (Nicolas Garza) and love interest Vanessa (Alicia Taylor Tomasko). As another pair of young lovers, Benny and Nina, Vincent J. Hooper and Cristina Oeschger steal the show with a mixture of chemistry and earnestness that lets us see their inner workings throughout the course of the evolving plot.
“In the Heights” is a triumph for Zach Theatre, a production that brings energy and vitality to their stage thanks to text and sound that resonate with contemporary audiences. Though ultimately telling something of a small, intimate story of love and family/community devotion, the sheer vibrancy of the show’s music demands a large-scale, vibrant production, which Zach and Balderrama deliver with energy and skill.
“In the Heights”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through July 2
Where: Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.