In the Heights celebrates life, love, community and music

A lot goes on in three days in Washington Heights, Manhattan — at least as portrayed in In the Heights. Graffiti Pete gets driven away from Usnavi's bodega — where everyone stops for light, sweet coffee in the morning — before he can make his mark on the door; Usnavi greets the neighborhood and yearns for pretty Vanessa; Vanessa likes Usnavi, but longs to get out of Washington Heights; Kevin and Camila run their taxi-dispatch shop and welcome back their daughter, Nina, the neighborhood's big success story since she escaped it to study at Stanford; Nina — whose life isn't quite as perfect as everyone imagines — teases and flirts with Kenny, their employee and her old friend. There are more characters: Daniela, who runs a hairstyling salon with the help of Carla; young Sonny, who admires his cousin Usnavi; the guy who trundles a piragua stand around and competes with the Mr. Softee truck; and the figure who represents the history and soul of this immigrant community, Abuela Claudia, a Cuban refugee who raised Usnavi, watches over the others, and goes out daily to feed breadcrumbs to the birds.

The plot has some problems; it starts disintegrating in the second act, though both the love affairs are touching, and the glimpses we get into several of the characters' backgrounds resonate. It's hard not to be moved when Kevin, faced with the loss of his business, describes the generations of farmers who preceded him and his valiant attempts to improve his own family's fortunes. Until very recently, it was widely assumed in America that children would climb the economic ladder and do better financially than their parents — but in this neighborhood, that satisfying myth simply doesn't apply: Everyone has money troubles, fears losing a job or can't pay the rent, and the education that was supposed to lift poor Nina into the comfortable middle class is sabotaged by her need to work three jobs in order to get by. Still, there's a great deal of warmth here, and much rejoicing at the mere fact of being alive.

In the Heights won a Tony for its score, and since the characters hail from countries as varied as the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Puerto Rico, Lin-Manuel Miranda's songs weave together several kinds of Latin American music. There's hip-hop, too, and Usnavi, who grew up in the United States, expresses himself through rap.

In her first — and very ambitious — venture as a director, Rebecca Joseph does almost full justice to this endearing Vintage Theatre show. The action flows well, and she keeps her large cast singing and dancing with exuberance. Jenna Moll Reyes is a very appealing Nina, vulnerable and tough, with an expressive voice. Janessa O'Fallon's Vanessa is a beauty, a pretty singer and graceful dancer, though her acting is a little muted. Alejandro Roldan is a solid Usnavi, and Asad Clinton fields fluid dance moves as Graffiti Pete. Other pleasures include Vincent Smith's charming, smooth-voiced Benny and Robert Payo's moving performance as Kevin. In smaller roles, Jacob Villarreal's Piragua Guy makes a strong impression, and Amy Luna lifts the roof with her powerful voice as Daniela attempts to rally the troops and get them to party.

But in some ways, this production adds to the plot's vagueness. It's sometimes hard to hear the words being sung. Though the choreography is pleasing, it could be cleaner and crisper in parts, as could the action in general. There's a major turning point in the second act, for example, when Graffiti Pete performs a secret task that, when revealed, saves the neighborhood — and I couldn't figure out exactly what the task was until I read a synopsis after getting home. But the joyful energy of the cast — some members of which drove from as far away as Greeley and Colorado Springs to participate — almost makes up for these problems, which may, in any case, resolve as the run continues.

In the Heights represents an important step for Vintage, bringing in several performers previously unseen on Denver stages and broadening the theater company's reach and appeal. On the night I attended, the packed and enthusiastic audience hung on to every word and note, sympathized with the characters' predicaments and rejoiced wholeheartedly at their successes.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman