Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of In the Heights
On Broadway, In the Heights musical soars
Glorious slice of everyday life in Washington Heights
By Scott Harrah
There are so few original musicals for the stage, and thats why In the Heights, which recently opened on Broadway after a critically acclaimed Off-Broadway run, is such an event for theatergoers. It has been many years since weve had a musical this colorful and culturally diverse, and for those two reasons alone, In the Heights could be a front-runner for the Best Musical Tony Award.
Not since West Side Story has there been a musical that celebrates Latino culture with such verve and engaging passion. Unlike that classic, however, In the Heights is hardly a seamless work. At times, many of the jubilant production numbersalthough marvelously entertaining and infectiousseem like pointless filler that do nothing to propel the story forward. The songs may not always make thematic sense, but nearly all of them will thrill anyone who loves well-crafted Latin music, from salsa to hip-hop. The music is geared more toward entertainment than storytelling. Thankfully, Quiara Alegria Hudess book is solidly structured, although it suffers from some predictable moments and begins to lag in the second act.
What distinguishes the show is its effervescent cast, compelling narrative, and characters that all give a glorious slice of everyday life in Washington Heights, the Manhattan neighborhood near the George Washington Bridge thats a vibrant, multicultural pastiche of Latin Americans. Anna Louizos set is gorgeous and fleshes out the district wonderfully for the stage, providing a nice backdrop for Andy Blankenbuehlers fast-paced choreography.
The shows standout song, Pacienca y Fe (Patience and Faith), features the elegant vocals of Olga Merediz, and is beautifully orchestrated and choreographed. While it has all the makings of a classic show-tune, it still seems tacked on and not essential to the plot. Regardless, Merediz brings down the house with this emotionally charged song in which she reminisces about her childhood in Havana. This is just one example of how cast members take the material and turn it into something extraordinary with such powerful performances.
The shows music and lyric writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, brilliantly plays Usnavi, a guy that runs a bodega on an average street corner in the neighborhood. Hes a down-to-earth person, like most of the inhabitants of the area. Usnavi is quite protective of the elderly Abeulo Claudia (Merediz), a lady whos taken care of him ever since his parents died when he was a child. Other neighbors include Kevin and Camila (Carlos Gomez and Tony winner Priscilla Lopez), a middle-aged couple who both run a car service and have a gifted daughter, Nina (Mandy Gonzalez), who has returned from her freshman year at Stanford. Nina is quite enamored of her parents employee Benny (Christopher Jackson), but her folks dont think he is the right guy for her.
Theres also beautician Daniela (the gleeful spitfire Andrea Burns) and her apprentice Vanessa (Karen Olivo), both of whom are nervous that the hair salon is moving up to the Bronx because the rents in Washington Heights are rapidly rising. Meanwhile, Usnavis 16-year-old cousin, Sonny (portrayed with winning zeal by Robin de Jesus), spends most of his time amusingly showing the proper way to win over the ladies.
Much of the drama centers on everyones changing lives. There are enough soap opera-style subplots here to fill all those great TV novellas on Telemundo or Univision, but all are realistic enough to keep audiences intrigued, and the plot twists never delve into mawkish melodrama.
What makes the show especially fun is the fact that nearly everyone has a songeven a minor character Piragua Guy (Eliseo Roman), a happy-go-lucky fellow who sells piraguas (tropical-flavored, Caribbean-style snow cones) from a street cart. Writing full-fledged theme songs for supporting cast members might have been unthinkable years ago, but in a show that explores the many layers and textures of neighborhood life, they do not seem out of place.
Some may think In the Heights suffers from a lack of focustoo many characters, too many songs, storylines that sometimes appear tritebut director Thomas Kail manages to keep everything cohesive. Thats no easy task for a show that has so much going on at once. Despite its numerous flaws, In the Heights is still one of the most promising new musicals of the season.