Considering all the American Idol contestants who have landed on Broadway — Constantine Maroulis, Clay Aiken, Taylor Hicks, Ace Young, Diana DeGarmo, Fantasia Barrino, Frenchie Davis, Tamyra Gray — Jordin Sparks’ appearance in In the Heights isn’t such a surprise. Still, no one was really watching the then-17-year-old Sparks — still Idol‘s youngest-ever champ — during season 6 and thinking, ”Get this girl a Broadway role!” (Unlike, say, Syesha Mercado, who belted out ”One Rock & Roll Too Many” from Starlight Express and wound up headlining a national tour of Dreamgirls.)
Sparks was smart to choose a hit musical like In the Heights — and a show she isn’t forced to carry. (That task falls to Kyle Beltran, who plays the affable Washington Heights bodega owner Usnavi, the role originated by composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda. Beltran’s Usnavi is more high-strung than Miranda’s — or recent star Corbin Bleu’s — but he proves a charming tour guide/narrator.) As barrio brainiac/Stanford student Nina Rosario, Sparks gets to belt out about a half dozen of Miranda’s Tony-winning songs, including the wistful ”When You’re Home” and the Spanish-English love duet ”Sunrise,” both with the super-charming Clifton Oliver as her love interest, Benny. When she’s singing she’s completely home. Other times, she’s visibly uncomfortable, shoving her hands in her pockets and hunching her shoulders. She looks a little like a sweetly awkward college student hanging out with her first crush, but a bit more like an inexperienced stage actress.
Even though she’s on the cover of the Playbill, Sparks isn’t the star of Heights (here’s our review of the original Broadway production). It’s not even Beltran. It’s actually Olga Merediz. In my five visits to Heights, the actress who plays Abuela Claudia brings down the house with two syllables. She sings ”Calor!” — the first word of her big number, ”Paciencia y Fe,” — and everyone goes nuts. Granny will be rocking the Richard Rodgers Theatre no matter when you go; Sparks is signed through Nov. 14 (though there are rumors she will extend through at least February 2011). Give her a couple weeks, and she’ll look even more like a sweetly awkward college student. B+
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929)