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‘In the Heights’ blends best of old and new

Paramount Theatre’s producti“In Heights” re-creates cityscape set used Broadway. | LIZ LAUREN PHOTO

Paramount Theatre’s production of “In the Heights” re-creates the cityscape set used on Broadway. | LIZ LAUREN PHOTO

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‘IN THE HEIGHTS’

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When: Through Oct. 6

Where: Paramount Theatre, 23E. Galena Blvd., Aurora

Tickets : $36.90-$49.90

Info: (630) 896-6666; www.ParamountAurora.com

Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

Updated: September 15, 2013 8:59PM



The magic of “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony Award-winning musical about the Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights — the section of upper Manhattan that lies in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge — is its marvelous duality.

On the one hand, this show is totally fresh — bursting with exuberant, contemporary, streetwise energy, and a mix of hip-hop linguistics and hard-driving salsa rhythms. On the other hand, it is almost old-fashioned in its heart-to-heart, human-scale storytelling about immigrant strivers, and generates the kind of deep emotional connection all too often absent from new musicals. And while its story is ultimately far more optimistic than “West Side Story,” it would be no exaggeration to say that with “In the Heights,” Miranda (with Quiara Alegria Hudes, who penned the show’s book) has given audiences a 21st century companion piece to that groundbreaking show.

The lavish and altogether infectious production that opened Saturday at Aurora’s exquisite Paramount Theatre, ideally directed by Rachel Rockwell and impressively choreographed by Katie Spelman, diverges very little from the Broadway edition. It uses an exact replica of Anna Louizos’ marvelous original set — a photorealist cityscape of gated storefronts, aging brick walk-ups with fire-escape balconies and the towering bridge. And its fine original orchestrations are played by a live orchestra (with great brass and percussion sections) under the music direction of Tom Vendafreddo.

What makes the difference here is the authenticity of every member of the cast, including Rockwell’s selection of an ensemble of all shapes and sizes — performers who also just happen to be able to dance up a storm.

Set during a few sweltering days and nights on and around the Fourth of July, “In the Heights” follows several interconnected story lines. At its center is Usnavi (fleet, skinny Nick Demeris), son of Dominican immigrants, who runs a little corner deli, and tends to his beloved “guardian,” Abuela Claudia (Paula Scrofano in glorious form), and his hip teenage cousin and helper, Sonny (an easily charming Luis Herrera). Usnavi is notably inept at wooing Vanessa (leggy Caitlainne Rose Gurreri in an appealingly real turn), the sexy salon worker desperately trying to rent an apartment downtown.

Usnavi’s neighbors are the Rosarios — Kevin (Ricardo Gutierrez, a fine actor) and his attractive wife, Camila (Lucinda Johnston, a real pistol) — who eke out a living running a cab service.

They have sacrificed all for their superachiever daughter, Nina (the power-voiced, hugely engaging Christina Nieves), who has come home to break the news that she has taken a leave from Stanford University, where she couldn’t keep up with two jobs and school work. She also rekindles a relationship with Benny (Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, romantic and fiery), the young black man Kevin mentored but doesn’t think is “good enough” for his daughter.

Adding comic zest to the proceedings are Vanessa’s gossip-loving co-workers, Carla (the hilarious Lillian Castillo) and Daniela (spicy Keely Vasquez); the “Piragua guy” (a memorable turn by David Baida), who peddles ices from his cart, and Sonny’s pal, breakdancer Graffiti Pete (Kris Santiago).

Elizabeth Flauto’s off-the-rack (at Kmart) costumes are ideal, and Jesse Klug’s lighting is superb. One flaw: The orchestra needs to dim its sound a bit for the hip-hop numbers so that Miranda’s dense, super-clever lyrics can be fully savored. He is a master.

As for Paramount’s Broadway Series, now in its third season, it has expanded from three- to four-week runs for its musicals. Catch this show and you will understand why. You also might begin to wonder why these productions are not transferred downtown. They are Broadway at its very finest.

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic



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