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Monday, March 10, 2008

In the Heights

"In the Heights" is an anomaly for Broadway: a joyous musical celebrating the Latino spirit, created by the multifaceted Lin-Manuel Miranda who, in addition to writing the music and lyrics, stars as the owner of a New York Washington Heights-area bodega. (Quiara Alegria Hudes wrote the book.)

While the songs -- a varied mix of rap, salsa, hip-hop and yes, traditional Broadway -- sound a little generic on first hearing, and the story line is not exactly riveting, the talented cast and overall verisimilitude of the tightknit neighborhood (helped immeasurably by Anna Louizos' evocative George Washington Bridge-dominated set), are completely persuasive.

The show, directed by Thomas Kail, has been tightened since its off-Broadway run last year. Miranda is the distinctively named Usnavi, who runs his business with his hipster cousin Sonny (the very likable and funny Robin De Jesus), and is in love with Vanessa (Karen Olivo), the beautician in the adjoining shop who yearns to move downtown. Vanessa's flashy gossip-obsessed employer, Daniela (Andrea Burns), provides some delightful comic relief, and endearingly pious co-worker Carla stays the moral course by repeatedly asking "What would Jesus do?"

Meanwhile, there's Nina (Mandy Gonzalez) who's dropped out of Stanford -- unbeknown to her hard-working parents (Priscilla Lopez and Carlos Gomez), who oppose her romance with decent Benny (Christopher Jackson), an apprentice in the family's taxi-dispatch business. Matronly Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, who surprises with her powerhouse voice) virtually raised Usnavi, and provides some plot excitement when she wins the lottery. A strong affirmation of family and community imbues the whole enterprise. (Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46 St., 212-307-4100 or www.ticketmaster.com)