In the Heights
That's what the woman sitting to my left said to her companion just after act one concluded at the Walnut Street Theatre's In the Heights. I can't blame her for being a little confused; the actors in In the Heights sing and rap at a high rate of speed, sometimes in Spanish. They mix languages and musical styles with exceptional fluency. But even if you don't catch every nuance, director Bruce Lumpkin's exuberant production is sure to get you wrapped up in the infectious spirit of Washington Heights, a Manhattan neighborhood where, as the protagonist Usnavi tells us in the catchy opening number, "Everybody's got a job, everybody's got a dream."
"It's too darn hot, like my man Cole Porter says," declares Usnavi (played by the energetic and likable Perry Young) on a sweltering July day in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. He runs a corner bodega where he observes all the neighborhood's colorful characters, from the gossips at the beauty salon to the pushcart-operating "Piragua Guy." (That's another thing I heard someone complaining aboutwhat is a piragua anyway? Yes, there are a couple of songs that explain how delicious it is, but wouldn't it be more effective to show us a piragua while they're at it? But I digress.) The most important character here is the community itself, a largely Latino enclave where everyone looks out for one other; even the menacing graffiti artist turns out to have a heart of gold.
The best element of In the Heights is Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning score, which blends balladry, Latin pop, traditional salsa and hip-hop into an intoxicating brew. If you think Latin music all sounds the same, In the Heights will surprise you: while there's no big showstopper, each song has a distinctive flavor. And while the rhymes tend to be imperfect, the lyrics are full of wit and illustrate the characters and their aspirations well. There are no instant classics here, but nearly every song will make you smile.
Usnavi dreams of returning to the land of his birth, the Dominican Republicbut in the end he decides to stay where he is. In a way, Quiara Alegria Hudes' book for In the Heights goes nowhere too; there's virtually no plot development. All the storylines end up tidily, and only one of the storiesthe saga of Nina (the charming Julia Hunter), whose floundering college career and forbidden romance put her at odds with her ambitious parentshas anything resembling dramatic tension. Hudes' script is more concerned with dramatic themes (generational conflict, the importance of family and the impact of tradition) than narrative. The book isn't bad, but it seems weak in comparison to the music.
The cast is uniformly strong. In addition to Young and Hunter, standouts include Rayanne Gonzales, who radiates warmth as the neighborhood's grandmother figure, and Gizel Jimenez as haughty sexpot Vanessa. Michelle Gaudette's choreography is full of verve and variety, although the playing space seems constricted (on a re-creation of Anna Luizos' Broadway set design). Douglass G. Lutz's nine-piece band provides able support, while Paul Black's lighting enhances the show's more somber moments.
In the Heights is complex, intricate and uneven. For every bold move, there's a plot development that seems too familiar. But like the people it depicts, In the Heights has an indomitable spirit that's hard to resist and impossible to ignore. Miranda's music, Lumpkin's direction and the vivacious cast make this busy corner of Washington Heights a place where you'll enjoy hanging out.
In the Heights runs through October 20, 2013, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $10 – $95, with premium tickets available for $175, and are available online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by phone (800) 982-2787.