Sunday, December 20, 2009

Blog Exclusive Review: In The Heights

Heat and Warmth

The heat of In The Heights is extremely impressive: after all, it takes place across three broiling days in July in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, and features an array of young characters dancing to an exceptionally energetic and lively latin-influenced score. But it's the play's warmth that is, in the end, even more notable. This is a play that loves its characters and its setting deeply, and tells their stories with theatrical skill and genuine heart. Despite a few slips into sentimentality and a few other stray flaws, it makes for an exciting and moving show.

The show tells several intertwined stories with impressive grace: Usnavi (Kyle Beltran), owns a corner bodega (grocery/convenience store), with his cousin Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett) as his only employee. He nurses a crush on Vanessa (Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer), who's desperate to leave the neighborhood, and her alcoholic mother. She works at the salon owned by Daniela (Isabel Santiago) and Carla (Genny Lis Padilla), who are being forced by rising rents to relocate to the Bronx. Nina (Arielle Jacobs), the neighborhood golden child, just got back from her first year at Stanford, but the year wasn't quite the triumph she said it was--a fact she's hiding from her parents, Kevin and Camila (Daniel Bolero and Natalie Toro). Soon she's also hiding her growing attraction to Benny (Rogelio Douglas, Jr.), an African-American employee at her parents' cab company. Watching over the whole block is Claudia (Elise Santora), related to none of them but an abuela (grandmother) to them all.

The plot looks complicated, but plays out gracefully and clearly. Bookwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes and composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also played Usnavi in the original cast) have crafted a winning, if romanticized, portrait of a neighborhood. Hudes' book doesn't have much time to work--well over half of the 2.5 hour show is music--but she deftly sketches characters that feel real after only a few lines. And Miranda's score is a wonder, certainly among the best to be heard on Broadway in the past 5 years. It's endlessly melodically inventive, and the lyrics are clever and lively. (It uses significant amounts of rap, and I'm amazed it's taken this long to have it in a Broadway show: as rap is based in lyrics and storytelling, it makes more sense in theatre than most genres. Perhaps the lack until now has just been Broadway's aesthetic conservatism, but I hope we hear more soon.)

Luckily, the book and score have real allies in the cast, who create a sense of ensemble and community that makes the story's implausible moments easy to ignore. They all sound wonderful (Miranda gives all of the principals a chance to really let it rip at least once), and its easy to believe that they grew up together and love each other and their community. While Usnavi is the nominal lead, Beltran gives a slightly subtler performance than Miranda did (at least judging from the cast album). This choice points up how passive the role is until relatively late in the show, but it also lets the ensemble nature of the story shine through: this is the story of everyone onstage. Each member of the cast deserves special comment, but lacking space, I must give particular credit to Taylor-Corbett's delightful comic work, the depth and fun Santiago brings to a character that could easily be a sassy caricature, and the erotic heat that Douglas and Jacobs give to their scenes together.

Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler keep the show in constant motion--it's dancing even when the characters are just speaking. They're wise to pitch the show to a slightly heightened style, in keeping with the small exaggerations of the book and score. They also use the small ensemble exceptionally well--the little details of character and movement going on in the background give the evening texture, and give depth to the dramas at center stage.

In The Heights has been getting a lot of attention for the use of latin music and rapping, which are still uncommon on Broadway. But in the end it's a very conventional show--characters learn lessons, lovers are united, and the importance of family, hard work, and community are validated. There's very little to challenge an audience member. But theatre created with this much skill and heart, that earns both the visceral excitement and the occasional tear in the eye, is still something really special. It's unquestionably worth heading into the loop to get to upper Manhattan.

In The Heights runs through January 3rd at the Cadillac Palace, 151 W Randolph. Tickets are $18-90, and can be purchased at any BIC box office, by phone at (800) 775-2000, at Ticketmaster retail locations, or online at


Myspace Versus Facebook – Which Is Best For Musicians? said...

seems to be an impressive show.Latin music i hope will add a lot of volume to the show

brendan said...

I'd like to know what producers buy a play like this because I've got one I'd like to sell them...and I'm no good at writing or creating anything. This was, at best, a lame high school product. The lyrics and singing dialogue were sophomoric and the plot, well it tried and tried hard, but just couldn't compete. Rap is cool, but this was retarded wrap. I felt sorry for the skilled cast attempting to pull this one out, but even they have to know a wiener (not winner) when they see one. I couldn't blame the patrons that walked out on this smorgasbord of tripe before intermission and then during the second act. For a bad play I usually give a rating of 4 donkey dicks - for the first time, this gets an unprecedented 5 DDs. Congrats, The Heights has hit the Lows.