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In the Heights

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

You wouldn't know from most musicals celebrating New York that the city really does extend north of Times Square. But the helluva/wonderful town praised in shows and songs from Broadway's Golden Age to today is again being feted, this time from an unexpected locale: way-up Washington Heights. And the new show throwing the streamers is worth a handful of confetti itself.

That's because In the Heights, which was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics) and Quiara Alegría Hudes (book) and just opened at 37 Arts, is an irresistibly energetic throwback to the days when a musical needed only a personable manner, an upbeat outlook, and a likable cast to ride to a comfortable run. It's so retro, in fact, it's almost nouveau; its complete lack of tradition flaunting, plastic-cookie-cutter characterizations, and withering irony make it feel far fresher than many other supposedly groundbreaking musicals in town. (Take Spring Awakening - please.) Add a scintillating score mixing south-of-the-border song styles like salsa and merengue with rap, hip-hop, and good-old Broadway belting, and you could rightfully predict you had the red-hot framework for a culture-shaking hit.

All virtues, however, come with a cost. The price for this reverberatingly youthful appeal is that the creators' determination to present an unusual, untested musical has not resulted in much visible professional polish. Enthusiasm and good intentions can get you a long way, but a trim book and a tight score will get you even farther. In the Heights has no shortage of the first two, but for the latter two, it has - at best - a good start.

Much of what's right and distinctive comes from Miranda, who not only conceived the show and has provided a score both authentically Latin and authentically musical theatre but also delivers an exciting star performance. As Usnavi, the Dominican owner of a Washington Heights bodega that fuels the entire neighborhood with its food, its coffee, and especially its lottery tickets, Miranda acts, raps, dances, and sings his way effortlessly through a demanding role with the panache of a charismatic concert artist. Everyone else onstage seems subservient to him, solidly appropriate for his character of a young man at the reluctant center of his own closed society and who can't wait - or bear - to leave.

Among those in his world: His younger cousin Sonny (Robin De Jesús), with whom he runs the deli; their unofficial grandmother Claudia (Olga Merediz), who dreams of hitting it rich; Vanessa (Karen Olivo), the salon worker Usnavi secretly loves but can barely speak to; Kevin and Camila (John Herrera and Priscilla Lopez), the owners of a taxi and limousine service facing bankruptcy for putting their daughter Nina (Mandy Gonzalez) through Stanford; and Benny (Christopher Jackson), the poor boy Kevin raised like a son and who now longs for the newly educated Nina.

We follow them, and assorted others in this close-knit family of neighbors, through an eventful Independence Day weekend as they're tested by that weightiest of pressures, change. Though certain specters have long hung over this group - has Con-Ed forgotten that people live there? Are Bronx companies trying to buy everyone out? - no one's quite prepared for how different the lay of the land will be on July 5.

But despite dozens of plot twists and reorganizations, there's not a surprise to be found in Hudes's limpid libretto. Even the show's target audience - early-20s non-theatregoers - will easily predict, for example, who will win the coveted $96,000 lottery jackpot, to say nothing of whether Usnavi will eventually get Vanessa, Benny will eventually get Nina, or Nina and her parents will eventually get each other.

That particular story thread, by the way, is also the only one that really approaches theatrical size. Herrera's portrayal of an immigrant father sacrificing everything to give his daughter the life he never had is forceful and moving, and the powerful despair he projects makes his first-act solo, "Inútil" ("Useless"), one of the few times the show sears and doesn't just gently warm. "Plan B," also concerning Nina's intent to forgo her West Coast schooling for a more affordable New York education, is a stirring musical argument of operatic proportions that Herrera, Gonzalez, and Lopez (otherwise sadly underused) perform expertly.

Most of the other numbers are similarly strongly composed - the expository title song, several "I want" variants, and a handful of specialty spots for various cast members are all wonderfully catchy - but they're too loosely integrated to satisfy dramatically. The score is perhaps too equitably divided for the large and talented company; Nina and her family could do with more songs and minor characters like Vanessa's gossipy boss (a funny Andréa Burns) and the frozen treat delivery man (Eliseo Roman) would do better with fewer.

Experienced writers might be able to figure things out on their own, but Miranda and Hudes need guidance director Thomas Kail apparently can't provide. Kail's staging and Andy Blankenbuehler's rambunctious choreography, on Anna Louizos's eye-poppingly realistic set, don't want for spice themselves, but impart no heat whatsoever to the aggressively mild book and score.

In the Heights doesn't falter because of its heart, but rather because that heart can't support a 22-person cast at current Off-Broadway ticket prices on its own. The care and extravagance this show's producers, Jill Furman and Rent-Avenue Q masterminds Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller, have demonstrated in presenting it suggest their dreams for it are as big as Usnavi's, Claudia's, and Nina's - who could blame them? But until the show finds a voice to express its bountiful good feelings, it's not ready to take the A train to the Theatre District.

In the Heights
Through April 1
37 Arts, 450 West 37th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

Photo: Lin-Manuel Miranda and Robin De Jesús. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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