A Washington Heights neighborhood dominated by a towering backdrop of the George Washington Bridge and pulsating with the heat from a 4th of July weekend is the setting for the bright new musical In the Heights. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who conceived the story, wrote the music and lyrics as well. He also appears in the pivotal central role as Usnavi, a likeable guy, who owns the local bodega.
Although Miranda’s stimulating music is the best part of the heart warming evening, the exuberant cast fueled by his lively rhythms delivers robust committed performances that make for a winning combination. Despite the evenings obvious shortcomings (the book by Quiara Alegria Hudes is simplistic and predictable), the feel good musical possess an infectious charm that is light and sweet like the coffee from the corner bodega.
In fact the upbeat quality of the show becomes a handicap that unfortunately burdens the evening. There is no sense of danger. Everything is unrealistically safe in this little corner of New York and you always feel as if things will work out perfectly fine. The show is more a throwback to the old fashioned musicals of yester year, than a comment on current times.
In the Heights chronicles three days in the life of a tight knit community of spirited Latin characters who live at the top of Manhattan’s West Side. They inhabit the bustling intersection that boats not only the bodega, but a unisex hair salon, and a local car service. Their neighborhood story reminds one of Rent, which was set instead on the lower East Side, and the story, although clichéd acquires charm from the interconnecting tales of the colliding lives on the street of the Heights.
In the opening number Usnavi performs a rap ode to the neighborhood, and we are quickly introduced to the leading players. 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 John Herrera, 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 becomes smitten with the maturing Nina. There are Graffiti Pete (Seth Stewart), and Piragua Guy (Eliseo Roman), two young guys that add local flavor.
The book has obvious holes, which we are expected to overlook, but the exciting music makes the task easy. Miranda is a gifted composer, and we will surely hear more from him in the future. If many of the tunes sound similar, they nonetheless hum with an energizing Latin beat that has infected the immensely likeable cast. They turn in a tremendous effort that gives the evening a musically cheerful life.
Not everyone’s cup of tea, but I am sure there will be large segment that will be touched by the captivating charm. Maybe not edgy, but there is hardly a dull moment, and if the music fails to hold you, there is always the George Washington Bridge, a magnificent image of Anna Louizos’ vibrant set that looms in the background.
gordin & christiano
Originally Published in Dan’s Papers
In the Heights opened February 8, 2007 at 37 Arts Theatre, 450 West 37th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. Tickets may be purchased at HYPERLINK "http://www.Ticketmaster.com" www.Ticketmaster.com (212-307-4100), or at the theatre box office.