It's easy to see why this Broadway hit strikes a resonant chord with die-hard musical-theater fans, while drawing new audiences. The combined vision of songwriter-conceiver–lead performer Lin-Manuel Miranda—making a bravura debut—and librettist Quiara Alegría Hudes is fresh and captivating, marching to a vibrant contemporary beat. Yet, when one looks closer, there's time-proven Broadway tradition lovingly woven into the material.
The central character, Usnavi (Miranda), whose late parents came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, is challenged by the immigrant experience, a theme previously illuminated in "Ragtime" and "Fiddler on the Roof." Miranda's ebullient rap-and-salsa score, the flavorsome depiction of a Latino culture, and a subplot of forbidden intercultural love evoke fond memories of "West Side Story." Meanwhile, the exuberant abandon of choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler's joyous production numbers and the story's warm humor suggest the high spirits of MGM musicals. The prodigious Miranda is a 21st-century Gene Kelly, combining boundless charm and stunningly graceful movements as he winningly rap-sings his way through his incisive and entertaining lyrics.
Though Hudes' somewhat diffuse book doesn't quite come into focus until after intermission, the colorful characters engage us throughout.
The narrative is a mosaic of stories about passionate and loving people on the precipices of major change. Usnavi is romantically pursuing saucy hairstylist Vanessa (the radiant Sabrina Sloan) while harboring dreams of returning to his native country. He was raised by a loving ersatz grandmother, Abuela Claudia (powerfully acted and sung by Elise Santora).
An overprotective father Kevin (Danny Bolero) and his wife Camila (Natalie Toro), who run a taxi dispatch service, are surprised to learn that their daughter, Nina (Arielle Jacobs), has ceased her studies at Stanford University due to financial pressures. Kevin is even more startled—and intolerant—when he finds out about the budding romance between Nina and his longtime African-American employee Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.).
Among other characters are Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett), Usnavi's sassy young cousin; Daniela (Isabel Santiago), the outrageous salon owner; Carla (Genny Lis Padilla), her assistant; benign local hoodlum Graffiti Pete (Jose-Luis Lopez); and Piragua Guy (David Baida), a food vendor. The performances are splendid throughout, and a terrific supporting ensemble rounds out the effort, under the skilled direction of Thomas Kail.
Alex Lacamoire's sensational music direction captures the red-hot excitement of Miranda's score. Anna Louizos' set design, Paul Tazewell's costumes, and Howell Binkley's lighting sublimely convey the setting.
Exploding with the energy of youth and the uplift of optimism in a changing world, the show is a musical for a new generation, as "Rent" and "Hair" were in their eras. But in place of a counterculture statement is a vehicle eliciting broad-based appeal. This seminal musical fosters renewed hope for the long-range durability of the art form.
Presented by Broadway/LA at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A. June 23-July 25. Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 and 6:30 p.m. (No 6:30 performance, Sun., July 4.) (800) 982-2787. www.broadwayla.org. Also at Segerstrom Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Aug. 3-15. Tue.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 and 6:30 p.m. (714) 556-2787. www.ocpac.org.