San Diego Musical Theater singers create a big “In the Heights” on a small stage

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If you’ve ever seen the musical “In the Heights,” you know it’s an energetic salsa and rap dance musical with great acting. So how is the San Diego Musical Theater able to perform the show on a small stage and a pre-recorded score? The answer is pretty good.

With a cast of 23 talented performers of triple-threat color, SDMT’s “In the Heights” is a heartfelt tribute and great voices 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 smothered by the emotional engagement of the actors and the story on stage.

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 Theater Critics Circle award in 2017 for his high-flying choreography in Moonlight Stage Productions’ “In the Heights” in Vista. But for this production, there isn’t enough room for this kind of expansive, bouncy dance, so choreographer Laurie Muñiz concentrates the action with tight salsa steps, rapid swirls and dancing couples in different areas of the multi-level compact streetscape by Mathys Herbert.

The strengths of this production are the strong voices and authentic emotions of the performers. Sebastian Montenegro leads the cast as Usnavi, a Dominican-born bodega shopkeeper in Washington Heights who yearns for home as well as Vanessa, the sexy hairstylist who works next door. Montenegro’s rapping skills are tight, musical and articulate and her voice bears a remarkable similarity to Miranda, the originator of the role.

Arianna Vila, as Vanessa, has a wide, high-pitched singing voice and excellent dancing skills. Other voice stars are Analía Romero as Abuela Claudia, the elderly Cuban immigrant who raised Usnavi after his parents died; and the three Rosario family members from Puerto Rico – Vanessa Orozco as daughter Nina, and Daisy Martínez and Berto Fernández as her parents Camila and Kevin.

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

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

Because the audience is seated so close to the cast of the new SDMT Stage theater in Kearny Mesa, their over-the-top singing — as well as the recorded score — gets quite loud. But the salsa beats and rhythms of the score are infectious.

“In the Heights”

When: 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. 8 p.m. on Fridays. 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday. 2 p.m. on Sunday. Until June 5

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

Tickets: 40$-75$

Call: (858) 560-5740

In line: sdmt.org

Ramiro Garcia Jr. as Piragua Guy in San Diego Musical Theater’s “In the Heights.”

(Ken Jacques)

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