As a Broadway musical with a Latin beat, "In the Heights" rises pretty high. Set in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, it fuses the traditional sound of Latin music with contemporary hip-hop energy. The vibrant result makes for a lively show at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia.
Although this winner of four Tony Awards avoids big-statement speeches equating musical diversity with this country's demographic diversity, it's a message that's implicit in the music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The book by Quiara Alegria Hudes certainly has Latino characters talking about what it takes to make it in America, but these characters generally are engaged in the same courtship rituals, family feuds and financial worries that have fueled countless Broadway shows.
That mix of culturally specific attributes and universally recognizable emotions accounts for the appeal of "In the Heights." The Toby's production, co-directed by Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey, immerses the audience in the Washington Heights setting, with corners of the theater used for a bodega, a beauty parlor, a taxi dispatch office and even an upper-floor apartment architecturally defined by its fire escape.
The set design and props are not elaborate, but they convey enough neighborhood atmosphere to make us feel like residents. Indeed, the silhouetted outline of the New York skyline runs along the theater's walls. Symphony Woods may not be Central Park, but a New York vibe does come across.
What matters most are the performances, of course, and these extroverted actors are uniformly engaging. At the thematic heart of the show is the bodega-owning Usnavi (David Gregory), whose relationships include his cousin, Sonny (Ryan Alvarado), who works at the bodega; his friend, Benny (Marquise White), who drives a cab; his potential girlfriend, Vanessa (Nadia Harika), whose job at Daniela's Salon facilitates a lot of teasing gossip; and his surrogate grandmother, the neighborhood-anchoring Abuela Claudia (Crystal Freeman).
When Usnavi observes that "this corner is my destiny," you definitely understand how firmly rooted he is there. Seemingly everybody stops by the bodega at some point, but much stage time also is spent with the family of Vanessa's friend, a college student named Nina (Alyssa W. Gomez), whose upwardly mobile parents, Kevin (David Bosley-Reynolds) and Camila (Tina Marie DeSimone), are the owners of Rosario's Car and Limousine. This family's tense arguments give the show much of its dramatic heft.
Those emotions percolate through the lyrics sung by Nina near the beginning of the show in "Breathe," and Gomez makes the most of this heart-tugging ballad; and she scores again late in the show with "Everything I Know," which benefits from everything we know about her character by then. That introspective quality also comes through in this final section of the show when Nina and Benny share their feelings in "When the Sun Goes Down."
Some of this production's other highlights also involve ballad-style arrangements in which characters get to share their inner feelings. Abuela Claudia, for instance, shares her world view in "Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith)," and vocalist Freeman brings suitable dramatic gravity to this song.
These and other soloists ensure that this musical pulls you into the characters' individual stories, but there also are ample opportunities for the ensemble to energetically blend their voices and also throw themselves into the evocative choreography by Christen Svingos.
It's also a treat to have a live band that's really alive throughout the show. Surging keyboards, propulsive percussion and an insistent trumpet make for an ear-filling street scene. If anything, the band is so assertive that sometimes it rides on top of the hip-hop-style lyrics and makes it hard to understand every line. Fortunately, these boisterous characters have no trouble expressing themselves in this noisy urban setting.
"In the Heights" runs through July 21 at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road. Call 410-730-8311 or go to http://www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.