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THEATER REVIEW: “In The Heights” at San Diego Rep

If ever there was a perfect vehicle for a San Diego Repertory Theatre/School of Creative and Performing Arts collaboration, “In The Heights” is it.

The Rep’s Sam Woodhouse directs the Tony-winning musical (which uses SCPA students in the ensemble and the band) through Aug. 25 in the Lyceum Theatre. “In The Heights” also marks the beginning of San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 38th season.

The wildly popular musical began as an 80-minute class project while composer Lin-Manuel Miranda was a sophomore at Wesleyan University. With a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, it went on to a Broadway run, 13 Tony nominations and four wins (for best musical, score, choreography and orchestrations).

This musical valentine to New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood is stuffed with jaunty hip-hop, salsa, merengue, even sad barchata numbers that demand the kind of energy, stamina and physical conditioning only found in the young.

Choreographer Javier Velasco takes advantage of their capabilities in ways that left me wowed after each production number. He’s even got them dancing in the aisles.

Washington Heights is a mixed (though largely Hispanic) neighborhood north of Harlem, where bodega owner Usnavi (Jai Rodriguez of the late lamented “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” TV series) and his squirrelly cousin Sonny (Michael S. Garcia) run a bodega and serve up hot coffee and cool conversation.

Usnavi, of Dominican heritage (named for the letters his parents saw on the first boat in the harbor on arrival) has his eye on sultry shampoo girl Vanessa (Danielle Moné Truitt) from the Salon Unisex next door, but there’s some question whether he will ever get up the nerve to tell her how he feels.

Kevin (Mauricio Mendoza) and his wife Camila (Roxanne Carrasco) own Rosario’s car and limo service; their daughter Nina (Chelsea Diggs-Smith) has just returned from her first year at Stanford with news they won’t want to hear and (even worse, from Kevin’s point of view) a fancy for Kevin’s black employee Benny (Desmond Newson).

Meanwhile, Salon Unisex owners Daniela (Susanna Paredo Swap) and Carla (Krista Barnes) are packing up the shop for a move to the Bronx.

This is a show about change, and Usnavi’s Abuela Claudia (Susan Daneker), the neighborhood matriarch, may have the key to some of the changes in the works in the Heights.

The music is infectious (kudos to the boffo 13-member band, all but one of whom are students at SCPA) and so are the performances. Every singer is excellent, and the show shines from the opening fearless dancing of Graffiti Pete (Spencer Smith) to the rousing chorus number at the end.

Sean Fanning’s handsome set (complete with the George Washington Bridge in the background) and Valerie Henderson’s terrific costumes add to the atmosphere, as do Trevor Norton’s lighting and Tom Jones’ sound design.

Congratulations to Woodhouse and the Rep for 37-plus years of theater in this city, and to SCPA for training such fine performers.

“In The Heights” is a don’t-miss-it winner.

The details

San Diego Repertory Theatre and the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts’ production of “In The Heights” plays through Aug. 25 on the Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.