Monday, April 7, 2008

In the Heights

Let me review my theatre geek checklist: Playbills of every show I've seen: got them. Multiple cast recordings of my favorite scores: ditto. Lavish coffee table books from my favorite musicals: absolutely. Guilty pleasure: I think I've found one!

Ok, technically, In The Heights, at Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre, is too well-reviewed to be a guilty pleasure, but I'm claiming it as one anyway. The plot is a little weak - it didn't have me sitting on the edge of my seat in suspense. But the musical has loads of charm, incredibly energetic dancing, and a score that combines hip-hop and salsa with more traditional Broadway sounds. It's also got funny, heartwarming characters and a terrific New York City scene of a set.

I've never been to the Washington Heights neighborhood at the top of Manhattan that In the Heights celebrates, but composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler have combined to present a real sense of place. To me, this is New York City: a close-knit community where the sounds and the food might be different but the values are the same as you'll find anywhere else in America.

And Anna Louizos' set, with its tenements and fire escapes and graffiti, the corner bodega and the little hair salon, is one of my all-time favorites. When I first saw it, I immediately thought of Sesame Street. (I mean that in a good way!) It has kind of a gritty yet wholesome look. I would not have been at all surprised to see Big Bird comes strolling by and learn that today we were going to talk about the letter "A."

In the Heights centers around three hot summer days in the lives of three generations of New Yorkers living in a neighborhood in transition. At the center is Mandy Gonzalez' Nina, who may or may not return to Stanford University, where she's had a difficult freshman year. While I found Gonzalez' performance very appealing, her story unfolds in a way that seems a little far-fetched.

Her sense of anxiety and feelings of failure seem very real and honest. But what her parents, Kevin and Camila, played by Carlos Gomez and Priscilla Lopez, are prepared to do to ensure that she can go back to Stanford seems excessive and defies logic. (The cynic in me wondered why she didn't live at home and go to Columbia, or get just as fine an education at a state university, saving her hard-working parents a ton of money. But In the Heights is not a musical for a cynic.) Gonzalez has alot going on - maybe too much. She's also romantically involved with Benny, played by Christopher Jackson, the African-American dispatcher who works for her father's car service, and her father does not approve.

I do appreciate the way book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes includes a variety of Latino characters in the musical. They're not cookie-cutter, interchangeable characters either. They come from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and they each have their own stories. I just wish we'd heard more from some of them.

I know that Miranda's Usnavi, who owns the corner bodega, is getting heaps of praise. Miranda, who conceived of the idea for In the Heights and started to write the music while he was a sophomore in college, is fun to watch. He has a great presence on stage, especially as he raps his way through the opening number. He even name checks Cole Porter. How cool is that! Perhaps my expectations were too high, but he didn't dazzle me as much as I thought he would. Part of it is a misunderstanding on my part. I thought he'd have a more central role in the plot when really, In the Heights is mainly Nina's story. There were other characters I enjoyed just as much, including Robin de Jesus' Sonny, Usnavi's cousin who works at the bodega and provides some great comic relief.

As Nina, Gonzalez simply won my heart. For me, she was one of In the Heights' most memorable characters. She just looked so youthful and sweet. She's sincere and smart and loyal and and lively. She's passionate and loving and wants nothing more than to live up to the expectations that everyone in the neighborhood, from her parents on down, have for her.

Gonzalez seems so true to life as a young woman with a foot in two worlds, who left her close-knit neighborhood for a great adventure on the other side of the country. She represents the first-generation American, the first-generation college student, the child upon whom immigrant parents heap so many hopes and dreams. Her first year away from home has been a difficult one, socially and academically.

When Nina sings about trying to find her place in the world, feeling like she's lost her way, wondering what her life would have been like if she'd grown up in Puerto Rico and had never seen Manhattan, it's incredibly moving. And she's the one who, in the years to come, will have to decide how much to assimilate and how much of her culture to retain.

At a time when there's considerable debate over immigration, In the Heights is a joyous reminder of the variety and vitality that newcomers from all over the world bring to this country. Nina's parents, Usnavi, and the other residents of this one upper Manhattan block are working hard to build small businesses, making sacrifices to ensure a better future for their children and watching out for their neighbors, all the while trying to carve out their own small slice of the American Dream.

In the Heights is a place to laugh, to get caught up in the stories of its very appealing characters, to be amazed at some incredibly energetic dancing, to feel your fingers and toes tapping to the beat of the music, and to watch a quintessentially American story unfold before your eyes. It's a place I loved visiting and where I'd love to return.


Anonymous said...


I had to laugh at your Columbia comment. I thought the same thing to. In general, I agree with your view of the show: you have to leave your critical discernment at the door to enjoy the show. Fortunately, I was able to the second time I saw it.



Esther said...

Thanks Chris! I was thinking, maybe the plot would have worked better if Nina were deciding whether to go away to Stanford or stay closer to home. Then the musical could really have explored all those issues of her apprehension at leaving the neighborhood, maintaining a cultural identity, leaving the guy she loves, etc. Plus, she seems like such a smart, with-it young woman, it's hard to believe she'd have a problem academically at Stanford. What courses was she taking?

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, Glad you enjoyed the show so much. While I liked it, I just never became truly entranced by it. But I'm happy to be in the minority on this one.