by Don Church and Tony Schillaci – Critics On The Aisle
Hopeful and vibrant, “In The Heights” redefines the American Dream. The joyful message here is that it isn’t always leaving one place for another that identifies success, but by improving your environment with the support of friends, neighbors and family, success can blossom right in the hood where you live.
This feel good musical, with words and music by Tony Award-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda reflects contemporary urban life in the best sense of the word “neighborhood.” In this case it’s Washington Heights, the north end of Manhattan Island – that’s even farther uptown than Harlem – which has “different energy from anywhere else in the city”, according to Miranda.
Populated with immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Ecuador, the essence of the barrio’s Latino flavor is reflected in the energetic melodic music that won Miranda his Tony.
Adding to the excitement and the joyful struggle of day-to-day life is the electric choreography of Tony Blankenbuehler who also won a Tony. The book by Quiara Alegria Hudes is chili-peppered with Spanish phrases and idioms, and director Thomas Kail keeps the show, and the large, multi-talented young cast, fast-paced and definitely in the moment.
Immediately likeable and immensely gifted Kyle Beltran as Usnavi raps the opening number “In The Heights” with such crisp enunciation that every lyric is sharp and clear. Miranda’s words as sung by Usnavi paint an instant picture of the vibe in the Heights, and the set design by Anna Louizos beautifully identifies the place as a melting pot of hard-working Nuevo Americanos under the shadow of the George Washington Bridge.
Standouts (in this first-rate, tour-company cast of all standouts) in addition to Mr. Beltran include soaring-voiced Arielle Jacobs as Nina, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer as upwardly-mobile Vanessa, Isabel Santiago as the wise-cracking hair-burning Daniela, and Natalie Toro as the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” Camila.
Shout-outs go to show-stopping David Baida who authentically reminded us of the guy who sold us shaved ice in San Juan; to Rogelio Douglas, Jr., who illustrated that ambition and determination can also be coupled with tenderness; to Shaun Taylor-Corbett – a good thing in a small package; to Elise Santora, who made us cry for Abuela Claudia; to Daniel Bolero who we wanted to “boo” but knew that as Kevin he was only a product of his upbringing; and to Genny Lis Padilla, whose bubble-headed charm was only matched by her tight jeans..
Another shout out to the fluid dancer who played Graffiti Pete – there was a substitution at the performance that we saw on January 5th, and it was unclear as to who played the part, so we’ll congratulate three dancers : Jose-Luis Lopez, Sandy Alvarez and Michael Balderrama!
In “The Club/Fireworks” and “Carnaval Del Barrio” ensemble numbers each dancer had a chance to showcase his/her exuberant talent. This is as much an inventive dance show as was “West Side Story,” although with a more joyful message.
Multiple accolades have been bestowed upon Lin-Manuel Miranda and “In the Heights” for its music – and for good reason. Most new musicals are one-note, one-mood pieces. All the songs sound alike; they aren’t well integrated with the book to further explore character or drive the plot. Not so with “In The Heights.” Miranda was influenced as a youngster by “Camelot.” “Man of La Mancha,” “Phantom,” “Les Mis,”,“Fiddler,”and he even played the Pirate King in “The Pirates of Penzance” in ninth grade.
Miranda not only knows how to write a song, but he knows how to end it – a technique that is also direly lacking in so many new musicals. His final notes punctuate the close of each number; there’s no need for the audience to wonder when to applaud.
Lin-Manuel wrote “In the Heights” when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. His sweetheart was going off to study in the Dominican Republic, and the day after she left he started writing the story of his angst, and finished it two weeks later. He also was unhappy that a show on Broadway by Paul Simon, called “Capeman,” depicted Latinos as knife-wielding murderers, much as “West Side Story” had done more than forty years earlier. “How specific a subset can you get?” he asked himself, and that spurred him on to write “In The Heights.”
Great theater is the hallmark of the Bushnell. And “In the Heights” exemplifies how it brings in the very best in fresh and exuberant theater. Nos gusto!
Don’t miss “The Lion King” 1/27-2/14. “Spring Awakening” 2/23-2/28. Buy tickets now at www.bushnell.org or call 860-987-5900.