Theater review: 'In the Heights' sizzles

Published: Saturday, Oct. 10 2015 1:26 a.m. MDT

From left, John Herrera (Kevin), Natalie Toro (Camila) and Emily Vaquez (Nina) in Pioneer Theatre Company's From left, John Herrera (Kevin), Natalie Toro (Camila) and Emily Vaquez (Nina) in Pioneer Theatre Company's "In the Heights." (Alexander Weisman)

"IN THE HEIGHTS," through Sept. 29, Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 801-581-6961, 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)

The first time I saw the Tony Award-winning musical "In the Heights," it was the weekend after it had won the Tony. It was the original Broadway cast. The evening was magical.

Though we're a few years and thousands of miles from that night, the regional premiere of "In the Heights" at Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre does a pretty darn good job of capturing the heart and energy of a show that requires mass amounts of both.

Lights up: On a fantastic set (G. W. Mercier, design) of a New York City neighborhood in Washington Heights — at the top of the subway map. There is a run-down bodega, the local salon and a cab company run by the Rosario family. Everyone knows each other and everyone has a story of trying to fit into a new country full of opportunity that seems to remain just out of reach.

Joseph Morales has the massive task of portraying Usnavi — a role originally played on Broadway by the show's creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda's brain is wired rhythmically — hearing the world through rhymes and beats. The character Usnavi is much the same way, therefore rapping the bulk of his lines. If you're not a fan of rap, please don't let this scare you away. There are plenty of lines that are rapped, but there are also just as many songs that are beautifully sung, and once your ear gets used to the rapid-fire delivery, you'll easily follow along.

Morales is fantastic. He's boyish, charming, warm and energetic with a lovely, genuine portrayal of the bodega owner. You'll find yourself wanting to order something to drink just so you can shoot the breeze with Usnavi for a moment.

Director Matt August's cast has plenty of other standouts, including Orem High grad Natalie Hill, who does a great job as the sassy, gossipy salon owner.

Among the rest of the top-notch performances: Emily Vasquez playing Nina, the barrio's pride and joy who went off to college; Joshua Boone as Benny the ambitious employee; John Herrera as Nina's father; Natalie Toro as Nina's mother; and Paul Aguirre as Piragua Guy.

I would have liked Vanessa, played by Manoly Farrell, to pack a little more of a vocal punch, but she sold the dancing.

Bob Richard's choreography was sultry and hot, and luckily he has a stage full of fantastic dancers who make it work.

The costumes were equally caliente, designed by G. W. Mercier. However, I did chuckle that Nina's first costume was grey Champion sweat pants pulled up to her knees (which I haven't seen young girls do in years). Why does being smart mean she has no fashion sense?

Helen Gregory directs a wonderful nine-piece orchestra, complete with the brass necessary for the Latin sound.

The nice thing about "In the Heights" is other than a few minor swear words, it really is a musical you could bring the whole family to and might be a great one to begin introducing theater to your preteens (who will likely respond to the rapping, youth and energy).

"In the Heights" is not to be missed. The message of family, home and belonging is universal, and that it's set to hot Latin rhythms with an attractive cast — that's not so bad either.

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