When you watch Portland Center Stage's production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights, you feel as if your body is absorbing the sounds—the fizzing of sodas in a bodega, the crackle of fireworks during a blackout—of Manhattan's Washington Heights. The musical is suffused with a loving attention to detail fueled by the adoration that the Hamilton creator's songs express for the neighborhood, a predominantly Latinx community (also known as "Little Dominican Republic"), just a street away from where he grew up.
Miranda's attachment to Washington Heights is so profound that at times he seems reluctant to allow any trace of cruelty to creep into the plot. Yet director May Adrales and her charismatic cast refuse to let the play buckle under the weight of its ceaseless optimism. They understand that In the Heights works best when it is presented not as a story but as a rush of feelings, movements and melodies that whisk you into another world.
That world belongs to characters like Usnavi (Ryan Alvarado), who runs a bodega, and Nina (played by understudy Paola Hernández at the performance I saw), a college student who has returned home after losing her scholarship to Stanford. While Usnavi longs to open a bar in the Dominican Republic, Nina's dreams of escape have crashed into the punishing demands of a job and school, which left her "working to pay for books I didn't have time to read."
Although the narrative architecture of In the Heights is built around these two, the tale takes us far beyond their lives. Miranda's songs and the play's book (written by Quiara Alegría Hudes) cast their gazes wide, giving generous musical and narrative beats to everyone from a graffiti-loving mischief maker who might be a visionary (UJ Mangune) to Abuela Claudia (Debra Cardona, who filled in for the role when I attended the show), a surrogate grandmother to Usnavi who wins a $96,000 lottery jackpot.
Abuela Claudia's windfall illuminates the play's most frustrating imperfection. Miranda and Hudes use the money as a silver bullet to neatly solve the emotional and financial problems of multiple characters—a choice in lockstep with their relentlessly cheery storytelling. While their positivity is inspiring, it isn't always interesting, and too many of the play's upbeat tunes blend into a generic parade of good vibes.
That hasn't stopped PCS from proving that In the Heights can be an enormously appealing spectacle. Scenic designer Tim Mackabee's ersatz Washington Heights is a gloriously vivid re-creation, complete with gleaming traffic lights, bulbous street scenes and an elevated platform where the band plays, towering over the action like a posse of musically savvy gods.
Like the score—which deftly blends Latin music and rap—the performances reverberate with breakneck energy. When In the Heights is over, you leave high on Magune's acrobatic agility and Alvarado's dexterous rapping ("Reports of my fame are greatly exaggerated/Exacerbated by the fact that my syntax/Is highly complicated 'cause I emigrated/From the single greatest little place in the Caribbean:/Dominican Republic!") and Karmine Alers and Tony Chiroldes' forceful work as Nina's parents, which tempers the play's youthful gusto with grown-up gravitas.
In the magnificently wrenching song "Inútil," Chiroldes lays bare his character's devotion to his family, singing, "They'll have everything they need/Or all my work, all my life/Everything I've sacrificed will have been useless." Those words can't help but call attention to a disquieting truth that echoes throughout In the Heights. In the past decade, the cost of living in Washington Heights has risen as affluent whites have moved into the neighborhood. The threat of gentrification isn't explicitly addressed in the play, but it reminds you that Miranda and Hudes' creation isn't just a celebration of a community. It is also a time capsule.
SEE IT: In the Heights runs at Portland Center Stage at the Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave., pcs.org. 7:30 pm Tuesday-Wednesday, 11 am and 7:30 pm Thursday, 7:30 pm Friday, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturday-Sunday, through Oct. 13. $43.50-$102.