In the Heights: A Review

7 Apr


In 1996, I spent 14 glorious months living and working in New York City. Every Saturday, I walked the six blocks from Astoria Blvd up to the Ditmars El stop, and began my day with feta cheese-filled filo pastry and the darkest, richest coffee I’ve ever enjoyed from a little Greek bakery packed with loud, welcoming Greeks, talking animatedly with their hands, sitting in a space where faded pictures of white buildings on rocky islands in the middle of azure seas hung on the walls. 

Following coffee, I proceeded down the blocks: to the fish market, to the butcher, to the fruit stalls outside the bodega, to the Blockbuster  for the weekend’s movies, and finally, back to my own corner, where I collected the laundry from the wash-dry-fold spot. 

It was the best 14 months of my life.           

And, two of the best hours of my theater life were spent on Tuesday night at the Hobby Center, where the national tour of In the Heights swept into town, with a flair of fresh salsa rhythms and cheery vignettes of life on a block in upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights.           

Here, amid the grittiness of barrio life and steadily creeping threats of development and gentrification, are a cast of characters that are by turns very real and every cliché. Wrapped up in the pulsing score that blends infusions of hip-hop and rap with hot Latin spice are the stories of what it means to be an American (or a Puerto Rican, a Dominican or a Cuban, as it happens), what happens when dreams and desires meet reality – and what it means to be home.           

Composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score drives this vehicle, which is hardly the first musical love letter to a piece of New York (On the Town, anyone?) and it’s definitely not the first to look at Latinos in New York (Can you say West Side Story). But his incorporation of rap and hip-hop and other neighborhood sounds tells the story where it lives. Quiara Alegría Hudes’ book is a weak point – you’ll be hard-pressed not to see the plot points coming from miles away – but, its heart is so sincere, you really won’t mind.           

At its core, In the Heights is about the people of this nondescript block: Usnavi, who owns the corner bodega, where he serves up café con leche with just a touch of sweetness and cinnamon (and played with charming energy by Kyle Beltran); his younger cousin Sonny who, even as he longs for change, recognizes that this neighborhood is his center; Nina, the neighborhood’s golden girl who got a scholarship to Stanford; her parents Camila and Kevin, who run the car company opposite the bodega; Benny, their star employee with the hots for Nina; Abuela Claudia, the wise grandma/sage of the block; the gals at the salon. They come in and out Usnavi’s bodega, buying coffee and the lottery tickets that will power this story.      


You’ve seen these characters before. Miranda himself noted that he borrowed themes from almost every musical he ever saw, including Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story and Rent. You just haven’t really seen them like this.           

Beltran’s Usnavi is torn between his desire to get away and drink margaritas on a beach and running the bodega as a legacy to his parents. His emotional grounding force is his relationship with Abuela Claudia, who practically raised him after his parents died, and he pines for Vanessa, the salon girl whose main goal in life is to rent a flat in a more stylish neighborhood. 

Kevin and Camila want the best for Nina, even if it means sacrificing absolutely everything. Daniela, the salon owner, is moving her shop up to the Bronx, where she got a better rent deal; she’s happy to take her staff with her and pledges support for Vanessa’s dreams, but is equally emphatic about not supporting Vanessa’ mother’s self-destructive ways.           

This is a show about people who can’t pay their bills, who struggle to hold on to what little they have, who look with longing for the next big thing and finally realize there’s no place like home – no matter where they wind up. As a production, it has holes galore – see the aforementioned weak book. Ditto music and dance numbers that have a tendency to look and sound the same. Yet it still manages to be utterly gratifying.           

Beltran story drives the bus of this production and his freeflowing rap riffs are pitch perfect. Arielle Jacobs pours her angst and worry into Act I’s “Breathe,” a pop musical ballad that’s part “Reflections” out of Disney’s Mulan and part American Idol styling; but her raw talent is inescapable. As her character grows into her own self-awareness, Jacobs is entirely believable in the role. Shaun Taylor-Corbett shines as Sonny, Usnavi’s “underage, underpaid cousin of the workforce,” who manages to do things like fix a fridge, set up Usnavi on a date with Vanessa, and create a slushy that’s part blue raspberry, part cola and Nerds thrown in on the end. He’s a cute punk with a rapid-fire dialogue and Taylor-Corbett’s having a blast on stage. 

Isabel Santiago, as Daniela, is brassy and fun, whether spewing forth harmless gossip or touting the virtues of hair gel. Elsie Santora’s Abuela Claudia is heartfelt and, ultimately, heroic. Her rendition of “Paciencia y Fe” is a gorgeous epistle of what both those qualities actually mean. And David Baida’s Piragua Guy is just a joy, both for his simple pleasure of owning his own piragua pushcart, and his ultimate triumph over Mr. Softee.           

Anna Louizos set is a cross between Sesame Street’s famous streetscape and a living tableau. If it’s almost too warm and fuzzy to be believable as a barrio block, who cares? It perfectly echoes the sheer warmth this show generates from start to finish.           

You’ve seen In the Heights before, hundreds of times, across hundreds of musicals and operas. You won’t find new characters here. What you will find, and what the future of musical theatre so badly needs, are new voices, using new ways of combining song and dance that echo their own lives. What powers In the Heights and makes it such a pleasure is that Lin-Manuel Miranda actually has something to say, something that isn’t about what a horrible lot in life this immigrant community has, but something sincere and relevant about hope and home.

Photos by Joan Marcus: (top) Elise Santora and Arielle Jacobs; (bottom) full company.


One Response to “In the Heights: A Review”

  1. VINCENT JAMES June 29, 2010 at 7:51 pm #

    I HOPE THE 2010-2011 SEASON.

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