Robin de Jess
music and lyrics by
In The Heights plays dangerously with expectations. It arrives uptown with a 2007 Obie for Best Off-Broadway musical, lots of advance critical acclaim and a legion of vocal fans proclaiming it a new style of musical. In other words, the perfect setup for a disappointing evening at the theater. Luckily for all those involved, the show delivers on nearly all fronts.
This fabled “new style” of the show is pleasantly overhyped. If anything, In The Heights reaches back to a time when musicals weren’t based on movies or songbooks. It is a musical with a few stories to tell, some great new songs and a cast of characters that, mostly, succeeds in breaking through the stereotypes we have come to expect.
The show is set in Washington Heights, a Latino neighborhood in New York City, the kind of neighbourhood where people are invested in each other’s success and heartbreaks. The show consists of the various interwoven stories of the characters lives. Things move briskly, if a little predictably, in the first act. Its after the interval where things really pick up, the pacing tautens and some of the stories move off in unexpected but satisfying directions.
And what of this much vaunted new style? Well, the music and lyrics have been supplied by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars in the show. A gifted young man, he has famously shepherded this show since his college days. And, as both writer and singer, he clearly has just the right touch for the sing-song style rap that his character, Usnavi, uses for exposition, narrative and dialogue. As a writer, he proves his versatility by including songs in different styles for the more traditionally talented singers. The way the musical incorporates rap and Latin rhythms is great, even if it is actually not all that new, mining a musical tradition that reaches back to at least West Side Story. And for those people who might be put off by the idea of rapping in a musical, let me add that I am no fan of the medium. But the pace, the feeling and the heart that Miranda brings to his music may just change my mind (though perhaps only in his case).
As Vanessa, the object of Usnavi’s affections, Karen Olivo has a great presence and a pleasant voice, and the fact that she stands taller and is far easier on the eye than Usnavi works to bring his insecurity into sharper focus. Olivo commands attention and it is obvious why Usnavi is infatuated with her.
The secondary love story is between Nina (Mandy Gonzalez) and Benny (Christopher Jackson), star crossed lovers from different backgrounds Puerto Rican and African American respectively complete with disapproving parents. Gonzalez brings a real sense of sadness to the role of the girl who has disappointed her family and is afraid to restart her life.
Among the standouts in the supporting characters, Robin de Jesus and Andra Burns shine. Robin de Jesus plays Usnavi’s younger (and hornier) cousin with an adolescent mixture of bravado and terror. Andra Burns brings humor, zest for life and a memorable way with flamenco tap, to her role as the local gossip.
Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, keep the cast constantly in motion and gives the show a distinctive rhythm. No one just walks in this neighborhood when they can swagger, strut or dance their way across the stage. There is an admirable naturalness to the production, it never feels forced or over the top.
Despite its urban setting this is not a show that deals in gritty reality. The barrio of Washington Heights is sparkly and safe, where crime only occurs to move the plot along (and then only once). But though it has attracted criticism in some quarters for what is perceived as an overly sanitized outlook, this isn’t really an issue; the show is about the people and the neighborhood in which they live, it is a musical not a documentary. And, for a couple of hours at least, the show makes Washington Heights feel like the only place to be.