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Theater review: Geva's 'In the Heights'

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At the age of 37, composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda is already a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards, two Grammys, an Emmy, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He has also been nominated for an Academy Award and was named in Time’s 2016 “Most Influential People in the World” list.

But it was three days in April 1999 that started it all. That’s when he performed his inaugural version of “In the Heights” as a sophomore at Wesleyan University. It was a rough version of the show, but the freestyle rap songs and spicy dance numbers were enough to catch the attention of a visionary team who wanted to take it further. “In the Heights” opened on Broadway in March 2008 and received 13 Tony Award nominations (winning four, including for Best Musical).

Nearly a decade later, “In the Heights” is still playing all over the world — and through October 8, it’s onstage in Rochester as Geva Theatre Center’s 2017-18 season opener. While a musical kickoff is typical for Geva, “In the Heights” is a different breed of musical.

Miranda drew from his own biography when he created “In the Heights,” as the story takes place in a block of the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City and features a largely Latinx population. (Miranda grew up in a nearby neighborhood and is primarily of Puerto Rican descent.)

Like its initial run, “In the Heights” takes place over the course of three days and follows a group of neighbors through their various trials and struggles one hot, catalytic July weekend. At the center of the narrative is Nina Rosario, who’s just returned from her freshman year at Stanford College in California. She’s the first in her family to go to college, and one of the few on the block to leave the Heights in the continued search of the American Dream.

Melissa Rain Anderson, a Geva affiliate artist who directed last year’s opener “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” directs “In the Heights,” and her talent for highlighting ensemble characters and knack for comedic timing make her an ideal fit for the position. Geva is also partnering with the Rochester Latino Theatre Company — which performed the area’s first production of “In the Heights” in 2014 — for community outreach efforts during the run.

Many of Miranda’s creations are known for their diverse casting opportunities, and “In the Heights” was the trailblazer of this trademark — Geva’s version is no different. The cast isn’t large, so even the ensemble members spend a lot of time on stage. The production is an energetic two-and-a-half hours (including a 20-minute intermission), filled with fresh, sexy choreography by Julio Agustin and bright rhythms performed by music director Don Kot and a seven-piece orchestra (which was hidden from the audience, presumably so it wouldn’t interfere with the movement on stage).

Touching musical numbers and genuine moments come from leads Mia Pinero (Nina), Chiara Trentalange (Vanessa), and Xavier Cano (Usnavi), but because there were two performances on September 10, the actors may have been tired during the 7 p.m. show. Voices sounded strained, and pitch was inconsistent at times. Even for a perfectly rested actor, these vocal arrangements, compounded with freestyle raps, are difficult.

There are many gripping roles, but a few actors stole the show: Alex Swift (who stood in for Alejandro Gomez as Sonny on September 10) embodies the role of Usnavi’s impressionable but good-hearted younger cousin; Sidney Dupont (Benny) injects energy into every scene with his strong vocals and affable character; and Donnie Hammond (Daniela) is the wise-cracking salon owner who belts a knockout version of “Carnaval Del Barrio” in act two. The only confusing casting choice is Yassmin Alers, who is far too young to play a convincing Abuela Claudia (though Alers herself is a delightful actor and vocalist).

Geva’s season opener defies musical standards: it’s an almost completely non-white cast, without ingénue leads, and the choreography highlights many different body types onstage. And because of it, “In the Heights” is an exuberant production with a refreshing cast. And though Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” fame may draw audiences to “In the Heights,” it’s important to remember — and appreciate — which show came first.

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