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TUTS nails quintessential modern American story 'In the Heights'


Houston Chronicle

"In the Heights" is the most relatable and universal musical to come along in modern times.

The story, told to the rhythm of clave and old-school hip-hop, is about first- and second-generation Hispanic immigrants with big dreams in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood -but none of the privilege to match.

It's about money, family, young love, gentrification and dancing salsa at a nightclub. It's as American as apple pie. Or you could say it's as American as piragua - Puerto Rican icy succulence landed in Manhattan and sold on the corner of hope and 181st Street.

Theatre Under The Stars' current production of "In the Heights," which includes several actors from the original and touring productions, is exactly what we need.

Nick DeGruccio has directed a vivid show with top-notch singing and dancing talent. "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda's lyrical genius is on full display here, and performers such as Blaine Krauss as Benny and Chelsea Zeno as Vanessa shine as scrappy, bright-eyed New Yorkers.

The plot is a hodgepodge of real-life stories, of taxicab dispatchers and nail-salon workers and bodega owners who give free coffee to the cute girls on the corner. But two main storylines pop out.

The first involves Nina Rosario, who has dropped out of Stanford because she was too busy working two jobs to keep up her grades. Michelle Beth Herman is sincere in this role that pins the hopes of the community on her.

The second is that of the neighborhood matriarch, Abuela Claudia, a striking Rayanne Gonzales, who briefly stumbles upon a rare commodity - good fortune.

Watching "In the Heights" in the post-"Hamilton" era means seeing a production with confidence in its step. Miranda has carved out a big piece of territory for himself, where talented brown people now jump and rap and fall in love on his stage. Even when minor glitches occur, such as a mic crackling then fizzling out, the actors pull themselves close together, so they can share not only a microphone but also the feeling that, in this part of town where everyone watches out for one other, nothing can go wrong.

"In the Heights" does not always break your heart or get you on your feet the way it wants to. It lives under the shadow of "Hamilton's" gargantuan achievement, and its story is a lot of everything and bit thin because of it.

Still, the music is some of the finest to arrive on the stage, and Anna Louizos' scenery - graffiti-covered awnings, crammed-together red-brick apartments, a distant sky in the backdrop symbolizing the scope of the characters' ambition - complements the sonic excellence.

If nothing else, "In the Heights" succeeds in just being here. That itself is a statement.

Thank God TUTS changed its course and did not open its season with "Grease." "Grease" has nothing to say to me. I can't connect to it, it's not about any type of young person I know, and if we no longer wear poodle skirts, pomade-slicked hair and rolled-up T-shirt sleeves, why should we still be subjected to stories told from an outdated perspective?

The TUTS production of "In the Heights" is decidedly nongreasy. There's no sense of being stuck, like a mouse to glue, to a theatrical and societal history that is quickly fading to black and white.

Instead, we have an ensemble cast of voices - led by an easygoing and charming Anthony Lee Medina as Usnavi - who haven't always been included in the canon and who now, thanks to Miranda's musical virtuosity, sing with optimism and embody effortless diversity.

Yes, young people can sing about their struggles without the tortured broodiness of "Rent," and the taste of the American air doesn't always have to be pie.

Piragua is delicious, too. You just have to try it.

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