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San Diego Musical Theatre’s singers create big ‘In the Heights’ on a small stage

Sebastian Montenegro as Usnavi, top, leads the cast of San Diego Musical Theatre's "In the Heights."
(Ken Jacques)

The Lin-Manuel Miranda musical gets a strong production in company’s new Kearny Mesa theater

If you’ve ever seen the musical “In the Heights,” you know it’s an all-out, big-cast, high-energy salsa and rap dance musical. So how is San Diego Musical Theatre able to pull off the show on a small stage and pre-recorded score? The answer is quite well.

With a cast of 23 talented triple-threat performers of color, SDMT’s “In the Heights” is an all-heart and big-voices tribute to Washington Heights, the culturally rich neighborhood where show creator and composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, spent his childhood. I’ve seen the show four or five times, including on Broadway, but this is the first time I’ve been choked up by the emotional commitment of the actors and story onstage.

In most productions of “In the Heights,” it’s the spectacular dancing that steals the show. Carlos Mendoza, who directed the SDMT show, won a San Diego Theatre Critics Circle award in 2017 for his high-flying choreography in Moonlight Stage Productions’ “In the Heights” in Vista. But for this production, there’s not enough room for that kind of expansive and leaping dancing, so instead choreographer Laurie Muñiz concentrates the action with tight salsa steps, fast twirls and dancing couples in different areas of Mathys Herbert’s compact multilevel streetscape set.

The highlights of this production are the strong singing voices and the authentic emotions of the performers. Sebastian Montenegro leads the cast as Usnavi, a Dominican-born bodega shopkeeper in Washington Heights who longs for home as well as Vanessa, the sexy hairdresser who works next door. Montenegro’s rapping skills are tight, musical and articulate and his voice has a remarkable similarity to Miranda, the role’s creator.

Arianna Vila, as Vanessa, has a large and well-pitched singing voice and excellent dance skills. Other vocal standouts are Analía Romero as Abuela Claudia, the elderly Cuban immigrant who raised Usnavi after his parents died; and all three members of the hard-striving Rosario family from Puerto Rico — Vanessa Orozco as daughter Nina, and Daisy Martínez and Berto Fernández as her parents Camila and Kevin.

Charlie Orozco offers comic relief as Sonny, Usnavi’s teenage cousin; Lena Ceja has the voice and moves as sexy salon owner Daniela; and sweet-voiced Ramiro Garcia Jr. is endearing as the Piragua Guy, the enterprising shaved ice vendor living his American dream.

Michelle Miles designed lighting, Derek Brener designed sound and Janet Pitcher designed costumes. Richard Dueñez Morrison served as musical director.

Because the audience sits so close to to the actors in the new SDMT Stage theater in Kearny Mesa, their all-out singing — along with the recorded score — gets pretty loud. But the salsa beats and rhythms of the score are infectious.

‘In the Heights’

When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. 8 p.m. Fridays. 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Through June 5

Where: SDMT Stage, 4650 Mercury St., San Diego

Tickets: $40-$75

Phone: (858) 560-5740

Online: sdmt.org

Ramiro Garcia Jr. as the Piragua Guy in San Diego Musical Theatre's "In the Heights."
(Ken Jacques)


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