Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Monday, February 19, 2018

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Lin-Manuel Miranda in ‘In the Heights’ (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

 

 “In the Heights” is distinguished by being the first Latin hip-hop musical to make it on Broadway. After a successful off-Broadway run last year, the producers of the show, which is set in the shadows of the George Washington Bridge – the Upper West Side Washington Heights section of Manhattan – have managed to make a probable hit of it at the Richard Rodgers Theater, where it has attracted large and friendly audiences of all ages. It recently was nominated for 13 Tony Award, including Best Musical.

 

 

 

To me, “In the Heights” is more of an entertainment than a conventional Broadway musical; an affectionate valentine to a community under siege of commercialization, urban renewal and an increasingly transient population. Unfortunately, the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music and lyrics and also stars in the show, and his book writer, Quiara Alegría Hudes, have chosen to hang their narrative on a weak premise filled with predictable, old fashioned situations. In other words, “In the Heights,” as pleasant as it is, is no musical masterpiece. For that you must travel to Lincoln Center and see “South Pacific” or head south to

 

What has occurred with “In the Heights” is an all-too-common fault in today’s musical theater: the show’s book does not strongly support the story, which takes place over a hot Fourth of July holiday, that the creators are attempting to tell. With “In the Heights,” this problem is amplified by excess doses of sentiment and cliché that ring false and keep pushing the show’s narrative away from the musical’s serious concerns, such as the precarious plight of the neighborhood’s citizens, into a slough of saccharinity.

Yet, despite these serious handicaps, creator Miranda’s autobiographical tale surprisingly has its jubilant moments, especially when “In the Heights” is singing Mr. Miranda’s infectious songs and dancing the exuberant salsa beat choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler. It is then we get to see what Mr. Miranda set out to do: celebrate his old neighborhood roots. He also has been helped enormously by his designers: the Heights neighborhood has been beautifully and meticulously reproduced by set designer Anna Louizos; colorfully costumed by Paul Tazewell; and given atmospheric lighting by Howell Binkley.

Mr. Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, began writing the show while a student at Wesleyan University. Recently he told an interviewer he was inspired to write the musical because he had grown tired of seeing Latino performers relegated to playing “‘West Side Story’ thugs.” He is referring here to the classic 1957 musical “West Side Story,” about urban gang warfare due to be revived on Broadway next season, ironically by two of “In the Heights” producers.

One area in which Mr. Miranda and director Thomas Kail have struck gold is with the cast – probably the most talented ensemble on Broadway. Mr. Miranda plays the musical’s lead, Usnavi, the Dominicano owner of the local deli, who is joined by a variety of neighborhood denizens: Vanessa (Karen Olivo), a beauty parlor owner hoping to upscale by moving out; Nina (Mandy Gonzalez), who left the Heights for Stanford, only to be forced to return; Benny (Christopher Jackson) who helps run a car service with Nina’s parents; Kevin (Carlos Gomez) and Camila (Priscilla Lopez); and Sonny (Robin De Jesus), the neighborhood spray can Michelangelo.

The kind of enthusiasm “In the Heights” has engendered is admirable and good for the theater; if theatergoers enjoy themselves at one show, they are more eager to purchase tickets to another.

I only wish Mr. Miranda and his fellow collaborators had crafted “In the Heights” more skillfully. Although the show has some touching moments, I wish they were held together by a story that had some teeth instead of just nostalgia.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.

 

West 44th Street

for Patti LuPone in “Gypsy.”