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Chicago by John Olson

In the Heights
Cadillac Palace Theatre

Also see John's review of American Buffalo

In the Heights
Kyle Beltran
Somewhere in between the marketing blitz for the big budget six-week Chicago run of Young Frankenstein and the excitement of the pre-Broadway tryout of The Addams Family, the fact that 2008's Tony Award winning musical (the one established hit of the three) In the Heights was coming to town may have gotten a little lost amid all the hype. Maybe it was the cold weather, but there were some empty seats at the press opening for the show's three-week run in Chicago. Let's hope Chicago audiences find their way to this very special musical and very personal expression of its songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda and librettist Quiara Alegría Hudes.

Miranda wrote the first draft of the musical as a college student and was reportedly working on various incarnations of it up through its Broadway premiere in March 2008. He wrote of the Washington Heights neighborhood in which he grew up, an area in the far northern reaches of New York's Manhattan Island that has been a starting point for immigrant communities for some 120 years. It's now comprised mainly of Latinos from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Ecuador and Mexico. Miranda's score mixes Latin idioms with hip-hop while Hudes' book deals largely with the efforts toward upward mobility of its characters.

The central character and narrator is Usnavi (he's Dominican—the middle Eastern-sounding name is explained in a joke I won't spoil), first played by Miranda on Broadway but handled ably in this touring company by the lithe Kyle Beltran. Usnavi is trying to keep afloat the bodega he inherited from his parents while keeping an eye on his teenage cousin and employee Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett) and the elderly neighbor he calls "Abuela" Claudia (Elise Santora). He's also trying to gain the attention of the hairdresser Vanessa (Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer), who's perpetually short of cash and looking for a better apartment and gig. His old girl-pal Nina (Arielle Jacobs) returns home unceremoniously after losing her scholarship at Stanford University and faces the disapproval of her parents (Daniel Bolero and Natalie Toro) who own a limousine service. Their disapproval intensifies when Nina becomes interested in their African-American employee Benny (Rogelio Douglas, Jr.)

Though the characters are reminiscent of people we've seen in other stories and their problems resolve too neatly by the end, they win you over with the great heart and sincerity given them by Miranda and Hudes. The richest character is Nina, whose failure at Stanford belies the great potential which she must have had in order to win the scholarship. Jacobs, who we last saw in Chicago as Gabriella in High School Musical, heartbreakingly shows us Nina's disappointment at the circumstances of her return and is believably conflicted over the friction with her parents. Similarly, Gonzalez-Nacer transcends the potentially clichéd Latin spitfire image of Vanessa by showing just enough vulnerability. Beltran gives a soulful demeanor to Usnavi as a guy carrying responsibility that's robbing him of his youth. Santora is a saintly Abuela Claudia, a first-generation immigrant watching out for the orphaned Usnavi, and we love her for it, thanks to Santora's heartfelt portrayal.

If the characters all seem a little too good to be true, flawed but not seriously flawed, the truth is we don't have much time to think about them as we're mostly being dazzled by the nearly wall-to-wall music and athletic dancing of the young company. Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography incorporates dance styles from hip-hop, salsa, jazz and ballet, and there's so much of it that you could almost consider the ensemble the star of the show, as they get as much or more stage time than any of the principals. Performing in Paul Tazewell's costumes amidst the streetscape set designed by Anna Louizos and Howell Binkley's stunning lighting suggesting hot summer daylight as well a dimly nightclub and Independence Day fireworks, director Thomas Kail and the ensemble make this show one big burst of color and motion.

Many in this cast were promoted from ensemble and understudy roles in the Broadway production. Their sureness and commitment to the material along with their first-rate vocal and dance abilities give the tour company a polish easily equal to that of a Broadway cast. Chicago audiences who take time out of their wintry holiday season will be treated to the pleasures of the hot July 4th weekend on the sultry island of Manhattan.

In the Heights runs through January 3, 2010, at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W. Randolph). Tickets can be purchased at all Broadway In Chicago Box Offices (24 W. Randolph St., 151 W. Randolph St. and 18 W. Monroe St.); the Broadway In Chicago Ticket Line at (800) 775-2000; all Ticketmaster retail locations (including Hot Tix and select Carson Pirie Scott, Coconuts and fye stores); and online at www.BroadwayInChicago.com.

For more information on the tour, visit www.intheheightsthemusical.com/tour-ticket-info.html.


Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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