It’s T-minus nine months to “Hamilton,” and in the run-up to the Washington takeoff of that hip-hop rocket, the city’s theaters seem to have declared this the year of its pilot, Lin-Manuel Miranda. So far, the region’s musical lovers have been given three, count ’em, three, distinct chances to see and hear his prior Broadway enterprise, “In the Heights,” a salsa-stepping valentine to the Upper Manhattan Latino neighborhood in which he grew up.
Back in April, Gala Hispanic Theatre translated some of Miranda’s songs into Spanish and mounted a successful, bilingual “In the Heights.” The Kennedy Center, anticipating the arrival there of the touring “Hamilton” in June, will present a concert version of “In the Heights” in March.
But for the truest steeping in the memories of the Tony-winning incarnation Miranda cooked up with book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes and director Thomas Kail for Broadway in 2008, you’ll have to venture out now to central Montgomery County. There, in collaboration with Round House Theatre, Olney Theatre Center has put on its main stage an enjoyably faithful, warmhearted facsimile of the original Broadway show. As this incarnation, directed and choreographed by Marcos Santana, so replicates the sound, look and feel of its Broadway predecessor, you’re always comfortably aware of Miranda’s spirit circulating through the house.
The sense of deja vu is reinforced in the happy-making participation of Robin de Jesús. This genial actor played the musical’s sweet sidekick Sonny on Broadway, earning a Tony nomination for it, and at Olney steps with pleasing confidence into Miranda’s own shoes to portray Usnavi, the lovelorn bodega owner who narrates the story of an eventful Fourth of July in Washington Heights.
“In the Heights” is itself an affable entertainment, and in its big-hearted embrace of a passel of New York characters of Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican descent, the musical endearingly celebrates an ethnic slice of America that is itself culturally diverse. Miranda’s score, though, given the lofty standard he’d later achieve with “Hamilton,” is serviceable rather than revelatory, more notable for the platform it provides for dance than for exploring the depths of personality. Nevertheless, in songs such as “Paciencia y Fe” (“Patience and Faith”), exuberantly performed here by Rayanne Gonzales as neighborhood saint Abuela Gloria, Miranda gives poignant voice to a core theme of “In the Heights”: the hope embedded in the sidewalks and storefronts of every immigrant community.
That notion is reinforced in the changes coming for the owners of businesses along 183rd Street, a streetscape ably conjured by set designer Milagros Ponce de León. Higher rents, redevelopment and the struggle to improve things for the next generation are putting added pressure on people such as beauty salon owner Daniela, played by with thousand-watt magnetism by Natascia Diaz, and car-service operators Kevin and Camila, capably embodied by Danny Bolero and Vilma Gil. The handsome, well-played younger folk — Stanford student Nina (Mili Diaz); car-service assistant Benny (Marquise White) and Usnavi’s love interest, Vanessa (Linedy Genao), who’s aching to move downtown — face their own assorted challenges. The people of the Heights, Miranda wants us to know, are as susceptible as any other Americans to some of the downsides of life: insecurity, defeatism, personal loss, even racism.
As musicals tend to tell you, though, few hardships can’t be set aside when it’s time to dance, and under Santana’s guidance, the merengue, salsa and break dancing by the ensemble, 19 strong, is of a rewarding caliber. The nine-member orchestra conducted by Christopher Youstra, with the assistance of sound designer Matt Rowe, sets a grandly infectious beat. And on several occasions, such as whenever the terrific Tobias A. Young enters with his shaved-ices cart, to sing a few joyful bars of “Piragua,” the company of this buoying revival really does manage to scale the heights.
In the Heights , music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegria Hudes. Directed and choreographed by Marcos Santana. Music direction, Christopher Youstra; sets, Milagros Ponce de Leon; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Cory Pattak; sound, Matt Rowe; production stage manager, Karen Currie. With Juan Drigo Ricafort, Melissa Victor, Michael J. Mainwaring. About 2½ hours. $47-$95. Through Oct. 22 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.