Skylight's 'In the Heights' is rousing, if sometimes faltering

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The Skylight Music Theatre has embarked on the second leg of its season-long journey exploring the concepts of freedom and revolution with In the Heights, a Latin-infused journey set in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda — infused with salsa, rap, hip hop and other Latin genres — broke new ground for the Broadway musical and earned 13 Tony Award nominations in 2009.

A tepid opening number introduces most of the characters — immigrants and first-generation Americans who are trying to make it in their increasingly gentrifying Dominican neighborhood. But director Ragnar Conde has his cast on a slow burn, and as the summer temperatures in the Heights rise, so does the quality of the production, expanding on its stories of ambitions dashed, dreams deferred, and a winning lottery ticket that gives one resident the chance for a new life.

Once the Skylight’s In the Heights warms up, it sizzles.

The shaky start could be attributed to the hesitancy of Tommy Rivera-Vega, who doesn’t quite have the charisma demanded of his character Usnavi — the play’s narrator and owner of the corner bodega. His gangly uncertainty pays off later in the play, in the scenes in which he woos the beautiful Vanessa (Katherine Brady) and in his tender interactions with his (surrogate) Abuela Claudia (Christina Aranda). But he has to fight hard to pull the spotlight back to him.

Not so for the women in this production, all of whom sweat talent onto the hot Washington Heights sidewalks. The standout — by far — is Rana Roman as Nina. From her first shuffles on stage, she embodies the terror and anxiety of a lost young woman who fears she’s let down her family and neighborhood by dropping out of Stanford. Early in the show, she sets the bar high with her opening number “Breathe,” and in the Act II parallel solo “Everything I Know,” she gets the tear ducts flowing.

Brady and Aranda have their moments, too. Aranda has the slightly meatier role, getting and delivering on a heavy solo that digs deep into the prejudice the immigrants face. Brady’s salon-worker Vanessa lends a sultry presence. She’s key to the success of a club scene in which she and Usnavi attempt to make each other jealous. And when she gets the sings about her desire to escape the barrio, there’s a quiver to her voice that betrays the uncertainty her words don’t.

Some of the play’s other characters don’t fit quite as well. The talented David Flores is miscast as Nina’s father Kevin. He’s great in his spoken interactions with Nina and his wife Camila (Ericka Wade). But in his single solo “Inutil” (Useless), a broken, working-class lament of his inability to provide for his family, he aims for a robust, almost-pompous operatic timbre that undercuts the song. And Rueben Echoles’ Benny is convincing in his rapport with Usnavi’s nephew Sonny (Marcus Cunningham) and his friends, but less so in his budding relationship with Nina.

In the Heights relies on visual elements more than the average musical, requiring a colorful barrio set and vibrant dancing to pair with its Latin beats. I loved the look of Misha Kachman’s bodega and adjoining businesses, but felt distracted by an awkwardly positioned overhead subway platform.

On the other hand, choreographer Claudia Sol Morgan’s engaging dance scenes integrated perfectly with Conde’s blocking.

Despite the occasional stumbles, the musical’s message that home is where you make it — whether it’s in a certain place or with certain people — comes through loud and clear.

On stage

Skylight Music Theatre’s In the Heights runs through Feb. 23 at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets range from $22.50 to $65.50. Call 414-291-7800 or go to skylightmusictheatre.org.