By Lynn Venhaus

A jubilant celebration of culture, community, and connection, “In the Heights” is a warm embrace emphasizing the meaning of home.

This Stages St. Louis production sizzles with its scrupulous staging and splendid ‘triple-threat’ cast. Director Luis Salgado, whose heart is big as the George Washington Bridge in New York City, makes the show ‘pop’ with his spirited direction and vibrant choreography.

The ensemble makes its mark individually — impressive as personalities but they come together as a whole, with a spark that lights up the stage like Fourth of July fireworks.

From the uplifting title song that introduces the cast, they will quickly endear because of their characters’ devotion to their friends and family, sharing heartwarming stories and creating a tapestry in their little corner of the world.

This version’s brilliant burst of energy is because of Salgado’s inspiration and his unwavering commitment to the musical that began 15 years ago. His effusive motto “Dare to go beyond” is apt here.

As a performer and emerging choreographer, Salgado was involved in the original work – with 118 performances off-Broadway in 2007 and nearly 1,000 on Broadway (2008-2010). He was assistant to three-time Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler (“In the Heights,” “Hamilton,” “Bandstand”).

Amanda Robles, Marlene Fernandez and Ariana Valdes. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Blankenbuehler had brought Salgado on board to give authenticity to the show’s movements and to help bring the creative team’s vision to life. He described Salgado as “passionate” and “inventive.”

Their mutual admiration society has resulted in Salgado using Blankenbuehler’s original choreography on the sensational ensemble numbers “In the Heights,” “96,000,” “Blackout” and “Finale.”

However, Salgado isn’t the only original connection involved at Stages.

Anna Louizos, Tony nominee for the show’s scenic design, designed the Ross Family Theatre’s richly textured set, creating the Washington Heights neighborhood that comes alive in a stunning recreation inside the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center.

This is an ideal setting for such an exuberant group sharing their hopes while struggling with everyday realities. “In the Heights” takes place over the course of three days, during a blistering summer heat wave in the barrio, which is on the brink of change.

Creator of the historic and cultural phenomenon “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony-winning musical in 2009 was special because it had a specific sense of place and resonated with a universal story about people chasing their dreams.

Manuel honored his Latin heritage and cultural traditions as an American whose parents came from Puerto Rico, growing up in Washington Heights (where he still lives). He included the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, and Caribbean Islands as origins, too.

The pulsating score is a hybrid of Latin, urban, hip-hop and salsa beats but also features touching ballads. Miranda was the first composer to put hip-hop lyrics in a Broadway show — and the youngest to win the Tony for Best Music Score in 2009.

Ryan Alvarado grew on me as the hard-working, good-hearted Usnavi de la Vega, the owner of a local bodega who dreams of selling the store and moving to a tropical place where he feels he can be happy. He’s the lynchpin to all the action swirling around him.

Tami Dahbura as Abuela Claudia. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

His confidante, Abuela Claudia, who dispenses advice – and love – to the neighborhood denizens, is the heart and soul of the show, and Tami Dahbura stood out in her heart-tugging numbers, “Paciencia y Fe” (Patience and Faith) and “Hundreds of Stories.”

Isabel Leoni as Nina and Amanda Robles as Vanessa are high points, showcasing their outstanding voices. You feel a connection with their characterizations immediately.

Nina, the golden girl who landed a scholarship at Stanford University, was a role model for many but now she is disappointed with herself and feels she let everyone down. She delivers a poignant “Breathe” and a sentimental tribute “Everything I Know” with much passion.

Usnavi’s crush, hairdresser Vanessa is someone who sees moving to Manhattan as a steppingstone to a better life. Robles soars in “It Won’t Be Long Now,” joined by Alvarado, who clearly wears his heart on his sleeve, and the whirlwind Luis-Pablo Garcia as his cousin Sonny.

Robles, Alvarado, Garcia. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

While the robust and oh-so-catchy “96,000” is Usnavi’s big number dreaming about winning the lottery, Robles shines in her part. Closer to the finale, Robles and Alvarado have sweet, tender and funny moments in “Champagne.”

The most moving song of all is “Alabanza” (Praise) in honor of Abuela Claudia, such love and respect expressed. It just may bring a tear to your eye.

Quiara Alegría Hudes wrote the musical’s original book, and it’s noteworthy regarding all the strong women role models, including Camila, Kevin’s wife and partner in a car service business, in addition to Abuela Claudia, Nina, Vanessa, salon owner Carla and employee Daniela.

Tauren Hagans excels in her two solo numbers “Siempre” (Always) and “Enough” as Nina’s strong mom Camila, and the four younger women have fun with “No Me Diga” (You Don’t Say!).

 Jahir Lawrence Hipps is impressive as Benny, who works for Nina’s intense dad Kevin (Edward Juvier). But when he falls in love with Nina, that’s another story.

Leoni and Hipps. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The duets featuring Hipps and Leoni are lovely – especially “When the Sun Goes Down” and they superbly lead the company on “When You’re Home” and “Sunrise.”

Juvier, a Stages veteran, with a St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical for “The Drowsy Chaperone” in 2017 and a nominee in “My Fair Lady” in 2014, was Bob Crewe in “Jersey Boys” last summer.

As the demanding dad Kevin, he showcases his vocal prowess in “Inutil” (Useless) and “Atencion” (Attention).

Comical relief is welcome when crowd-pleasers Cristian Rodriguez as Graffiti Pete and Michael Schimmele as Piragua Guy are on stage, as well as salon owner Carla, firecracker Marlene Fernandez, and Ariana Valdes as her animated cohort Daniela, who leads the buoyant “Carnaval del Barrio” (Neighborhood Carnival).

Fernandez, Schimmele and Valdes. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

And Garcia, who was memorable as Freddy in “The Karate Kid – The Musical,” is in a league of his own, as cheerful chatterbox Sonny, stealing practically every scene he’s in, eliciting laughs every time he’s on stage.

The sprightly ensemble includes Tavis Kordell Cunningham, Mauricio Villanueva Espinosa, Carmen Guynn, Sarah Hampton, Paola Hernandez, Karma Jenkins, Ricco Martin Jr., Jovany Ramirez, Joey Rosario and Carlita Victoria.

Music Director Walter “Bobby” McCoy keeps the tempo lively and brings out the emotional sincerity in the ballads, using the arrangements and orchestrations of Tony winner Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman.

As the conductor and a keyboard player, McCoy has a dynamic orchestra that flavors the Latin score with their expert musicianship in strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Trumpet player Chris Miller brings such a great sound to “The Club/Fireworks” while the percussion’s driving beat is such a treat. Ovations for McCoy, Miller, associate music director and bass Alerica Anderson, Sean Andrews on second keyboard, Travis Mattison on guitar, Lea Gerdes on reeds, Evan Palmer on trombone, Charles “Chuck” Smotherson on drums and Peter Gunn on percussion.

Hagans and Juvier. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Bethany “Beef” Gratz’s sound design is exceptional — smooth and crystal-clear, capturing not only three generations of rhythms but the ambiance of the neighborhood.

Costume Designer Brad Musgrove outfits the vivacious residents in casual, colorful summertime attire, with a few dress-up glam looks, while Sean M. Savoie’s lighting design is a striking enhancement on the day’s progression and the nighttime worries. 

Salgado’s joy regarding the material infuses the entire production, as he moves things at a vigorous pace from well-staged big numbers to intimate emotional scenes. Special mention to assistant director and associate choreographer Bryan Ernesto Menjivar and dance captain Megan Elyse Fulmer, for this show is a terrific example of teamwork and collaboration.

This uplifting show had me on my feet and humming the songs afterwards, putting the cast album back on rotation at home. If anything can change a mood, it is this 23-song collection and this exciting ensemble that aims for the heart and has us at “Hola!”

Amanda Robles as Vanessa. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Stages St. Louis presents “In the Heights” from July 22 to Aug. 21 at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood, Mo. Performances take place in the Ross Family Theatre. For more information: www.stagesstlouis.org

Photo by Phillip Hamer