The musical In the Heights conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda (with music and lyrics by Miranda as well) is an infectious celebration of a Washington Heights neighborhood pulsating with Latin-American rhythms. Mr. Miranda’s songs blend rap, hip-hop, jazz, pop and salsa into a nostalgic love letter to his community, while making reverent nods to traditional show tunes .The combination is irresistible. And there is a bitter-sweet quality running through the entire evening that gives a soulful counterpoint to the jubilant production.
In the Heights moved to Broadway after a well received six month run last season. Our main criticism then was Quiara Alegria Hudes’ heavily clichéd, sentimental book. With the transfer, however, the characters have been fleshed out a bit, deepening the emotional tensions and the conflicts. As a result, the story’s main theme of immigrants coping with the gentrification of their neighborhood has been given more resonance.
Physical components have been worked on as well. The dancing that won a Drama Desk Award last season is even more sensational. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler doesn’t keep to one style for too long continually shifting the chaotic urban feel with heightened energy. The staging by director Thomas Kail makes use of every nook and cranny on Anna Louizos’ even more detailed set dominated by a spectacular backdrop of the George Washington Bridge soaring into the sky.
Add to all of this Howell Binkley’s redesigned lighting with a shimmering palette of colors that shift as the scenes move from dawn, to dusk, to night. Then there is the spectacular 4th of July fireworks juxtaposed with the candle light of a sudden blackout. All the tweaking has turned the evening into an immensely satisfying experience that is sure to charm even the most entrenched cynic.
In the Heights chronicles the life of a tight knit community of Latinos, who live at the top of Manhattan’s West Side. They inhabit a bustling intersection that boasts not only the corner bodega, but a unisex hair salon, and a local car service. The action takes place over a three day 4th of July weekend. The neighborhood story reminds one of Rent, and some of the dancing is reminiscent of “West Side Story.” Although the book is still clichéd, the story acquires charm from the collision of the interconnecting tales and this is after all a musical, where there is not one single dull moment.
Miranda plays the pivotal central role of Usnavi, a likeable guy, who owns the local bodega, but his musical is no ego trip. Miranda’s songs are character driven and they give every single member of the uniformly fantastic cast a moment to shine with at least one outstanding solo. Fueled by Miranda’s lively rhythms the ensemble delivers robust committed performances that makes for a spirited combination.
With the opening number, which begins as rap ode to the neighborhood and builds momentum, we are introduced to the large cast of vivid characters They are: Usnavi’s devoted aged Aunt, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz); Nina (Mandy Gonzales) just back from her first year at Stamford University, the 19 year old daughter Camila & Kevin (Priscilla Lopez and Carlos Gomez), who own the car service for over 20 years; the beauty salon proprietor Daniela (Andrea Burns) and her stylist Vanessa (Karen Olivo), who make comments on the unfolding action; Benny (Christopher Jackson), a young stud that works for the car service and who is smitten with the maturing Nina. There are Graffiti Pete (Seth Stewart), and Piragua Guy (Eliseo Roman), two young guys that add local flavor.
The feeling of these people being bound together yet each struggling to express their own distinctive voice gives humanity to the evening. Combined with Miranda’s dynamic score, his playful rhymes, and his witty lyrics delivered by a inspired cast In the Heights is all that and more…a tribute to old fashioned musicals with a fresh edge.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dans Papers
In the Heights opened on Broadway March 9, 2008 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W 46th Street. Tickets are available at HYPERLINK "http://www.ticketmaster.com" www.ticketmaster.com , 212-307-4100, or at the box office.