Volume 77 / Number 45 - April 9 - 15, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since
1933


Theater

IN THE HEIGHTS
Music & lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by Thomas Kail
Open run
Richard Rodgers Theatre
226 West 46th Street
(212-307-4100; intheheightsthemusical.com)

© Joan Marcus

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 that’s 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 we’ve 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 numbers—although marvelously entertaining and infectious—seem 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 Hudes’s 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 that’s 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 Blankenbuehler’s fast-paced choreography.

The show’s 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 show’s music and lyric writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, brilliantly plays Usnavi, a guy that runs a bodega on an average street corner in the neighborhood. He’s 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 who’s 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 don’t think he is the right guy for her.

There’s 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, Usnavi’s 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 everyone’s 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 song—even 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 focus—too many characters, too many songs, storylines that sometimes appear trite—but director Thomas Kail manages to keep everything cohesive. That’s 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.

 

 

 

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