When the lights go up on a Manhattan barrio filled with brick storefronts and fire escapes (the George Washington Bridge is visible in the distance), you may think first of West Side Story. It’s a fair comparison. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes’ In the Heights has several notable thematic connections to the Bernstein/Sondheim/Laurents show. Of course, West Side Story sets an impossibly high standard, but don’t worry. Heights is very much its own thing. Miranda’s hip-hop-flavored score and Philly-born Hudes’ sassy book pulsate with vitality and good humor. And if in some ways Heights is surprisingly old-fashioned and full of heart-on-the-sleeve optimism — well, how refreshing!
Though Heights has a nominal protagonist — Usnavi, an endearing young man who works at the local bodega and watches out for his neighbors — the show really is an ensemble piece, a snapshot of the community. It’s not an easy life — money is short, and possibilities for upward mobility seem far out of reach. But there’s joy abounding, especially in the personal connections shared by friends and family. These celebratory moments emerge most often in Miranda’s music and lyrics, which are often captivating, if not always memorable.
Heights isn’t perfect. The score could use more variety, and especially some additional moments of lyricism. It would also feel more natural if not every number strove to encapsulate the Latino experience. But for the most part, the show is utterly winning, as is the Walnut’s top-notch production. The ensemble cast is sensational — there’s not a weak link among them, but special kudos go to Perry Young as Usnavi, who meets every acting, rapping and dancing challenge with charm to spare. I’ve seen enthusiastic opening-night audiences before, but the roars of approval here were something special — and well deserved. Now this is how you kick off a season!
Through Oct. 20, Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., 215-574-3550, walnutstreettheatre.org.