REVIEW: Reaching for the Heights

The much beloved, new-ish Broadway musical, “In the Heights,” is popping on and off the Walton Arts Center’s stage this week. The show center rings the New York Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights, where Usnavi, a local boy paragon, sells everyone’s favorite café con leche from his bodega. The neighborhood casually drops by at the top of the first act for requisite introductions: there’s Usnavi’s cousin, Sonny; the next door salon owner and stylists, where Usnavi’s crush, Vanessa, pines for an escape from the ‘hood; and, the Rosarios who own the gypsy cab company across the street, along with Benny who runs the cab intercom, and their daughter, Nina, the neighborhood’s success story, fresh home from her first grueling semester at Stanford.

But everything seems to revolve around Abuela Claudia, Usnavi’s surrogate grandmother and linchpin of the show. She serves as the voice of the neighborhood’s ever-present immigrant past, as well as their hope for perseverance, for a future where they won’t have to struggle so hard. It’s a scrappy musical about a scrappy neighborhood, if viewed somewhat through some pretty rosy glasses.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who grew up in Washington Heights, wrote the music and lyrics and even originally starred as Usnavi on Broadway. Every moment of the show has something of his fingerprint, and the music makes it what it is (as it should). Understudy to the traveling show’s lead, Robert Ramirez heads the Fayetteville cast as the rapping and street-wise bodega owner. The neighborhood seems to swirl around his store, with impressive, vibrant choreography (those of you who enjoyed “Bring It On” will be pleased). The movements seem designed to remind how every street corner is a tiny urban universe to those who grew up there. The show is not short on energy.

While some performances were not necessarily the powerhouse they were lauded to be in the Broadway show, the cast is solidly worthwhile. In the dance vein, the minor character of Graffiti Pete, played by Roddy Kennedy, opens the show with a brief but mesmerizing number with a can of spray paint, and from there I caught myself following his choppy/fluid movements in the ensemble numbers throughout the show. Ramirez’s raps picked up speed by the end of the first act, as almost all of the singers’ numbers did. The stand-outs for me were Christine Aranda as Abuela and her dead-center stage solo “Paciencia y Fe,” a moving tale of her immigration and life in New York, and the two brief numbers with Gabriel Gonzalez’s Piragua Guy, another minor, but highly effective character.

The authentically styled set, complete with background George Washington Bridge is impressively realized, tearing more than a page perhaps out of the urban musical playbook (RENT, Chicago, Little Shop of Horrors, etc.). The story holds few surprises outside of the music. The general plotlines don’t steal any of their lyrical thunder. But, if you are a musical fan, “In the Heights” is a must-see, an already firmly established facet in the ever-evolving revival of the form. I’d say this is a pretty good performance of an excellent show.

“In the Heights” has one more performance in Fayetteville, tonight starting at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at, or through the box office at 479-443-5600.