Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 6, 2010
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 Zachary Dietz. 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: Corbin Bleu, Andréa Burns, Janet Dacal, David Del Rio, Marcy Harriell, Christopher Jackson, Priscilla Lopez, Olga Merediz, Rick Negrón, Courtney Reed, William B. Wingfield, and Tony Chiroldes, Dwayne Clark, Rosie Lani Fiedelman, Marcus Paul James, Nina Lafarga, Jennifer Locke, Doreen Montalvo, Noah Rivera, Eliseo Román, Gabrielle Ruiz, Luis Salgado, Rickey Tripp, Michael Balderrama, Blanca Camacho, Afra Hines, Allison Thomas Lee, Alejandra Reyes, Jon Rua, Marcos Santana.
That’s less faint praise than it may sound. Stepping into the role created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, also the show’s conceiver and Tony-winning composer-lyricist, is no small challenge. Miranda was dynamite as Usnavi, the young Dominican bodega owner who longs to return to his parents homeland, but finds himself inexplicably tied to the barrio of his upbringing. Though he couldn’t much sing, Miranda was a top-notch rapper, and brought enough darkly suave charm to his character to diminish the apparent importance of the inconsistencies and clichés of Quiara Alegría Hudes’s friendly but paper-thin libretto.
Bleu’s performance is considerably more traditional, less full of cocky attitude and more dependent on guy-next-door likability. If this does sand down the edges of a show that’s already softer than most of the old-fashioned New York feel-goods that inspired it, it’s right for Bleu’s personality. When events of 48 turbulent hours across the Fourth of July weekend thrust Usnavi into (unintentional) callousness, heartbreak, and introspection, Bleu’s innate sunniness makes them obstacles to overcome rather than the inevitable outgrowths of the more determinedly hard approach to life Miranda’s version suggested.
So, yes, Bleu’s portrayal is less complex and immediately fascinating, and you never really find yourself wondering whether Bleu’s Usnavi will pull things together in time for the final blackout. His more polished singing and more grinningly natural chemistry with those around him are just the extra dashes of syrup on the piragua of predictability. But Bleu’s approach does pay unexpected, and hardly unwelcome, dividends on the rest of the characters, by making Usnavi even more the fulcrum of the community he ought to be.
It’s easier, then, to endure the more saccharine subplot concerning Usnavi’s surrogate grandmother, Abuela Claudia (the fierce Olga Merediz), who won’t take her medication and pins too many hopes on a lottery ticket. It helps somewhat silly supporting characters, like the graffiti artist with a heart of gold (William B. Wingfield) or Usnavi’s wolfish and completely unversed cousin Sonny (David Del Rio), seem like exceptions rather the rule. And it makes the many songs about pain and dreams - whether for education, a financial windfall, or even just identity - more instinctual expressions than obligatory exercises.
All told, the show is stronger now than when it opened on Broadway two years ago (or Off-Broadway the year before that). Thomas Kail’s direction seems more pungent; Andy Blankenbuehler’s frenzied choreography matches the atmosphere and rhythms of Washington Heights with more precision and less distraction. The casting has remained solid: If no newcomer has reenvisioned his or her role as completely as Harriell has - letting Vanessa be far more fragile, approachable, and dependent on change than Karen Olivo’s was, to heart-wrenching effect - they’re all solid, distinctive replacements. And the original cast members who remain, including Merediz, Jackson, Lopez, and Andréa Burns as the saucy beautician-busybody, have only grown more comfortable in their adopted neighborhood.
This all still isn’t enough to make this a great show, mind you - its Best Musical Tony notwithstanding, it’s more functional and fun than it is enlightening or even necessarily memorable. But it stands as a firm lesson for how a musical can truly mature as it ages, and not seem like it’s forever waiting for a return appearance from its first and strongest cast members. That Bleu has graduated from acceptable teen supporting player to formidable adult leading man should please his legions of tween fans, but that In the Heights is better overall now than it was should please the parents who will have to cart them to the theatre.