Courtesy of http://kcmetropolis.org
By Don Dagenais
In the Heights seems fresh and spontaneous despite its long gestation and history. Originally conceived by student composer Lin-Manuel Miranda during his college years, the story attracted the interest of the Broadway producers of Rentand The Drowsy Chaperone in 2000. After workshops, additional collaborations and refinement, the show opened in Connecticut and then moved to an off-Broadway theater in New York for seven years. After more than 200 performances it finally moved to Broadway, but not without even more changes to the script and score.
The musical ran for almost three years on Broadway and gathered the four Tony awards, and became the feature of a 2009 special on PBS’ Great Performances. Since then, it has been touring around the country.
Musically speaking, the show features rap music-inspired dialogue and the rhythms of hip hop and Latin music, which are unusual for musical theater. Underneath, however, In the Heights
is grounded in the solid tradition of Broadway musicals. It essentially tells the story of new populations fighting against old ways of doing things, and as one of the original Broadway performers noted, Fiddler on the Roof
is in its DNA. WhileFiddler
is about an old community where nothing has changed for hundreds of years, In the Heights
tells of a Washington Heights barrio in Queens where change is almost constant.
Miranda sets the musical around a central figure, Usnavi, a Dominican Republic émigré who is the owner of a bodega (grocery) on 183rd Street at the foot of the George Washington Bridge, which looms in the background. He serves as both the storyteller and protagonist, and is working hard to keep his assistant Sonny on the right track. Usnavi lives with elderly Grandmother Claudia, and pines for Vanessa, a shampoo girl at the next door unisex salon, who dreams of a life away from the neighborhood. She is inspired by her friend Nina, a freshman at Stanford University (who represents opportunity away from home), who returns from school with a dark story of what has happened in California.
Kevin, Nina’s hot-headed father, is an immigrant from Puerto Rico and works hard to improve life for his family, but he needs grounding by his wife Camila, a cool and reflective partner who keeps Kevin on a firm leash. Meanwhile, Usnavi has befriended Benny, a cab driver a one-time punk and a hoodlum, that has been rescued by Kevin, whom he sees as a father figure. Benny, meanwhile, loves Nina, who…well, you’re getting the idea. It’s a many-faceted plot.
A number of additional characters flesh out the story, including the ladies who run a nearby hair salon. They represent a mixture of nationalities and traditions, all struggling to find their way in a neighborhood full of change and danger but which also, for some, holds great promise.
Musically speaking, the score is energetic, rhythmic, and essentially Latin in character, with a few more traditional ballads thrown in. Most of the story, however, is told through the gentle rap rhythm of Usnavi’s dialogue and the spectacular dance numbers – 24 in all, some featuring some energetic break dancing – which the cast attacks with gusto.
Both the dance numbers and the musical highlights seem taken from a combination of different influences. As one critic has noted, “the show looks, feels, and sounds like a musical amalgam of West Side Story, Rent,
and Sesame Street Live
.” This writer would agree, with the additional comment that In the Heights
, while it has clearly been influenced by successes of the past, seems fresh and not derivative.
Among particular highlights are the opening number “In the Heights” which sets the rap and Latin pattern of the musical; “Breathe,” a lovely waltz solo by Nina; “It Won’t Be Long Now,” a ballad by Vanessa; the sprightly quartet “No Me Diga;” a duet by Grandmother Claudia and Usnavi, “Hundreds of Stories;” and a grand finale by the whole company.
The set is realistic and charming, and the first act ends with a spectacular special effects version of a 4th of July fireworks display.
As Usnavi, the energetic Perry Young drives the show and charms the audience. Virginia Cavaliere, who portrays Nina, has the best voice in the cast and gets several of the choicest numbers. Presilah Nuñez, who is Vanessa, is riveting for both her vocal and dance performances. Kevin and Camila are sung by Benjamin Perez and Celina Clarich Polanco, respectively, both of whom give strong performances. Also memorable are Christina Aranda as Grandmother Claudia, who has a stunning solo near the end of the first act, “Patience and Faith,” and Robert Ramirez as the roguish Sonny, who is a little dangerous but utterly charming.
Starlight Theatre has strived over the years to present for its audiences not only the great classics of musical theater history but also new and sometimes challenging productions. In the Heights
is a welcome addition to Starlight’s repertoire, and you won’t want to miss this energetic, sparkling and touching production. If you are a traditionalist, it will challenge but delight. If you love newness and change, you will welcome this show to the Starlight’s star-trodden stage.