Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 9, 2008
In the Heights Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Directed by Thomas Kail. Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Music Direction by Alex Lacamoire. Set design by Anna Luizos. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Arrangements and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman. Cast: Andréa Burns, Janet Dacal, Robin de Jesús, Carlos Gomez, Mandy Gonzalez, Christopher Jackson, Priscilla Lopez, Olga Merediz, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Karen Olivio, Seth Stewart, and Tony Chrioldes, Rosie Lani Fiedelman, Joshua Henry, Afra Hines, Nina Lafarga, Doreen Montalvo, Javier Muñoz, Krysta Rodriguez, Eliseo Román, Luis Salgado, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Rickey Tripp, Michael Balderrama, Blanca Camacho, Rogelio Douglas Jr., Stephanie Klemons.
Just don’t assume that a dash or two of spice can cure all ills. Though it comes complete with one of the most winning new male stars, and some of the most dynamic choreography, Broadway has witnessed in years, this uptown valentine is never as fulfilling as it is flavorful. Its youthful energy and unashamed showmanship are reason enough to shout for joy; its missed opportunities are reason enough to stay silent.
But our tour of the neighborhood should begin with its most cheerworthy fixture: Lin-Manuel Miranda. The show’s conceiver, composer, and star might be only 28, but he exudes the confidence of a polished pro twice his age. Onstage, he’s got the physical ease of a well-toured musical gypsy, a nimble way with a rhyme, and a fire-eyed outlook that lets him command the stage and everyone on it with gregarious grace. His score quotes freely from both Cole Porter and more contemporary forms, but first and foremost always deepen and further librettist Quiara Alegría Hudes’s wide-eyed tale of a turbulent Independence Day holiday in Manhattan’s upper reaches.
Miranda plays Usnavi, the corner bodega owner around whose coffee and wisdom everything and everyone else revolves, and who has a curbside seat for watching this close-knit community rip apart at the seams. Kevin and Camila (Carlos Gomez and Priscilla Lopez) are the owners of the local taxi service, and their daughter Nina (Mandy Gonzalez) is just home from Stanford; Daniela (Andréa Burns) runs a combination beauty salon and gossip hub; Vanessa (Karen Olivo) is a young woman desperate to escape her abusive mother but lacks the cash to dash.
Uniting them all is the question of whether it’s best to stay or leave the area in the shadow of gentrification. Kevin and Camila’s love for Nina leads them to consider selling their business to finance her foundering education. Their employee Benny (Christopher Jackson) has been watching Nina from the shadows for years, too ashamed of his poor upbringing to admit his affection. Daniela is preparing to sell her business to a Bronx corporation. Usnavi longs for Vanessa and desires to return to the Dominican Republic, but feels too responsible to the bodega and the surrogate grandmother, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who’s raised him since his parents’ deaths.
Complex storytelling this is not. But that doesn’t pose much of a problem on its own: In the Heights is the rare case of a musical that finds its warmth without winking, its open-heartedness without irony, and its optimism without embarrassment. Its pleasures and its messages may be simple, but they’re always genuine. There’s no reason this must be a darkly gritty urban saga - these days, who couldn’t do with an extra dash of romance?
But the stakes the show doesn’t have make it feel old-fashioned to the point of dustiness. The economic, social, and self-esteem issues bubbling beneath the surface suggest these people form a texture of passionate souls, an ideal foundation for the hope the writers consider so vital. But every argument that arises, from whether Benny is good enough for Nina to a full-on bar fight near the end of the first act, has its intensity invariably set to low from the outset. The show’s central concern - which of these inhabitants will still be hanging on in two days’ time? - is barely enough to sustain nearly two and a half hours.
There is much, however, that is easy to love, starting with Anna Louizos’s evocative cityscape set (complete with the George Washington Bridge in the background) and Andy Blankenbuehler’s electric choreography, which transforms the constantly bustling streets into a perpetual-motion dance machine. The band (led by Alex Lacamoire) and orchestrations (by Lacamoire and Bill Sherman) even sound like they’ve been boosted and broadened for Broadway.
Then there are the performers, who supply the stirring personalities and soaring voices necessary to bring Washington Heights to life. Olivo and Gonzalez are outstanding, honest belters, while Jackson is a king of laid-back comedy and Robin de Jesús (who plays Usnavi’s overeager teenage cousin, Sonny) is prince of the more in-your-face variety. Gomez and Lopez make the most of their single significant solos, while Merediz brings an unexpected ferocity to hers (“Paciencia y Fe,” or “Patience and Faith”) that makes her one of the few grandmas who can legitimately stop a hot show cold.
For sheer exuberance, though, no one tops Miranda. Whether narrating by means of the infectious title song, building the foundations of dreams in “96,000” (about the impending Lotto jackpot), or being brought to his knees by an uncooperative champagne bottle, Miranda is awkwardly dashing, yet ripe with a character actor’s unavoidable charisma. He’s got spirit to light up a darkened city, and bounce to spare in his step and his score - he singlehandedly makes musicals look cool again.
What makes Miranda so invigorating as a performer and writer is that you’re never sure what he’ll show you next, or whether the devil he’s hiding inside will ever eclipse his outward angel. In the Heights needs more of this kind of uncertainty - as it is, it’s nonstop fun, but never fresh, thoughtful, or exciting enough to live up to its outstanding leading man.