Ellis C. Dawson III, center, with the cast of “In the Heights.” PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni

Phenomenal storytellers help raise up Beck Center’s ‘In the Heights’

By Bob Abelman

The Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights has gone through many changes since the early 1900s, when it was largely populated by Jewish and Irish immigrants from Europe.

By midcentury, Soviet refugees were the dominant demographic, who were then replaced by families from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico. By the 1980s, gang activity infiltrated Washington Heights, resulting in a crime rate that rivaled nearby Harlem. In the 1990s, the neighborhood became the largest drug distribution center in the five boroughs and beyond.

This is not quite the welcoming world that’s been created by Lin-Manuel Miranda (music/lyrics) and Quiara Alegria Hudes (book) for their 2008 Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights.” Their Washington Heights is a highly romanticized and thoroughly sanitized celebration of three generations of Hispanic families who are just trying to carve out a living and make this piece of the island their home.

And it is on display at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood.

Like the cups of cafe caliente, liviano y dulce that the Latin-American locals purchase each morning from the corner stop-n-shop, this musical’s hip-hop-and salsa-based score is hot, its slice-of-life storytelling is light and easy, and it is told by abundantly sweet and absolutely endearing characters with sentimental simplicity.

Even the spray-painted images that cover the buildings in this little neighborhood, courtesy of Graffiti Pete (Warren Egypt Franklin), are art rather than an artifact of gang activity, delinquency or territoriality.

This delightful, feel-good musical explores small problems of the heart rather than anything overtly serious or dramatic. We are invited into the Heights to observe the budding romance between a shy Usnavi (Ellis C. Dawson III) — the show’s lovable, rap-happy narrator — and the gorgeous Vanessa (Christiana Perrault), experience the elderly Abuela Claudia (Jessie Cope Miller) winning the lottery, and share the hardship of Camila and Kevin Rosario (Kelsey Baehrens and Jared Leal) selling their struggling gypsy cab company to pay for their proud daughter’s college tuition.

But there is also an undercurrent of urban renewal and gentrification, which is threatening to change the area’s complexion once again as locals discuss moving to more affordable Bronx and Queens.

The threat is very real in this particular production of “In The Heights,” for director Victoria Bussert singlehandedly advances the neighborhood’s urban renewal ahead of schedule by casting African-American and Caucasian actors in roles built specifically for Latinos.

This is not intended to make a statement of any kind. The production is a collaboration with Baldwin Wallace University’s music theater program and at the mercy of the existing talent pool and the school’s recruitment efforts.

Still, such ethnic-insensitive casting is so counterintuitive in a show like this — with songs like “Inutil,” “No Me Diga” and “Siempre” in Act I and “Hundreds of Stories” in Act II — that it unavoidably undermines Lin-Manuel Miranda’s efforts to showcase Latino talent and culture, albeit within Broadway musical theater parameters and with Broadway musical theater sensibilities. And it is impossible to ignore.

Fortunately for us, BW’s recruitment efforts attract some of the best and hardest- working actors, singers and dancers in the country. These young, talented performers understand full well Broadway musicals and, under Bussert’s creative vision and supervision, fill the stage with energy and remarkable execution. The result is an immensely entertaining production.

The adorable Dawson is an immediately accessible, always interesting Usnavi. He handles all the character’s freestyling wordplay and narrative responsibilities with ease and notable grace.

Other standout performers in an ensemble where everyone delivers include Livvy Marcus as Nina, the Rosarios’ daughter, whose beautiful and heartfelt rendition of “Breathe” is breathtaking; Michael Canada as Sonny, Usnavi’s hustling cousin; Malik Victorian’ as Benny, who is Nina’s earnest love interest; and Isabel Plana and MacKenzie Wright, as the gossiping beauty shop owner Daniela and her sidekick Carla, who deliver much of the show’s comic relief with enormous charm.

Scenic and lighting designers Jordan Janota and Jeff Herrmann beautifully replicate the busy corner of Washington Heights found in the original and touring productions, while adding conductor David Pepin and his incredible nine-piece band on stage in the shadows of the George Washington Bridge. Pepin’s efforts, and those of hip-hop/merengue choreographer Gregory Daniels, drive this music-centric show and are the sources of its much-needed Latin soul.

Not long ago, this column revealed how a Semitic-lite community theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof” managed to thrive on the brilliance of the music and the merits of the story. This Latino-lite “In the Heights” soars because of its phenomenal storytellers. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “In the Heights”

WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood

WHEN: Through Feb. 28

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$31, call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 15, 2016.

Lead image: Ellis C. Dawson III, center, with the cast of “In the Heights.” PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni