Stage Review: In the Heights

This touring Tony winner is a Latin-music treat.

In case you haven't heard, the Broadway musical is dying, supposedly on its deathbed since the ink dried on the score for A Chorus Line back in the '70s. Cats, Rent, and Wicked don't count, say the pundits and blue-hairs, because none can claim more than two memorable melodies; and there isn't one of them that can stand up to Oklahoma! or South Pacific. So what to make of the bus-and-truck tour of In the Heights? It's more a raucous block party than a traditional show—and they have cojones enough to call it a musical? It's a messy menudo of salsa, hip-hop, soul, and merengue rhythms, but it's also cacophonous, sensual, and better than any big stage musical I've seen in years. Our setting is Washington Heights, an area of upper Manhattan that the Irish abandoned decades ago, now mostly occupied by Dominicans, Cubans, and other Caribbean immigrants. In the Heights follows two young couples. First, orphaned Usnavi (Joseph Morales), who owns the corner store that serves as an anchor for the barrio, and Vanessa (the multitalented Lexi Lawson), whose greatest ambition is simply to move across town to a bigger life. Second, in a tangle of interracial and generational conflicts, African American Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.) pines away at Rosario's Car Service for Nina (Arielle Jacobs), the striving daughter of his very old-school Latino boss. But when Nina returns from college (Stanford, no less), she scandalizes her proud parents with the news that she had to drop out, because she was too busy working "to pay for books I was too busy to read." The family is cast into turmoil, except for the saintly but ailing Abuela Claudia, a Cuban émigré and the spiritual core of the Heights. Here let's admit that In the Heights is scripted like a Univision telenovela, and its few plot twists are telegraphed a half-hour before being revealed onstage. But all is forgiven in the bustle created by Lin-Manuel Miranda's sizzling score and Andy Blankenbuehler's exhilarating choreography. (The book is by Quiara Alegría Hudes.) In the Heights sounds and feels more genuinely Latino than anything that's ever hit the big time in American musical theater. (And, yes, I include DNA donor West Side Story in that comparison.) By the end of the first few numbers, you're dizzied by the percussion, the hot blare of trumpets, Usnavi's Eminem-style explication, and the America's Favorite Dance Crew hoofing. What In the Heights does well, it also does in abundance. With a first act that runs nearly 90 minutes, it's like walking into a club and having the hottest girl in the place decide you're her favorite dancer—and you're not getting a break until she's shown you every single move in her considerable arsenal. That zeal to show off is what makes In the Heights irresistible. Act One concludes with a tune called "The Club/Fireworks," a fevered six-tequila-shot workout that leaves both cast and audience hot and exhausted. The joyful "Carnaval del Barrio" reminds me of growing up along the El Paso/Juárez border. The syncopated rhythms, soaring choruses, and colorful costumes will make you want to go home, cart your angsty CDs and black D&G uniforms out to the nearest dumpster, and burn them. (But about those ballads—does everyone in the show require a five-minute lament in the spotlight?) Perhaps what's best here is that In the Heights remains new enough that the touring performers are still thrilled to parade by in their 2008 Tony Award–winning vehicle. Director Thomas Kail has assembled a combustible array of too many talents to mention, and the musicians in the pit are clearly having just as much fun playing music that's both demanding and crackling with dramatic tension. How authentic it is to the actual experience of living in Washington Heights today, I have no clue. But it's guaranteed to be closer to its origins than "Bali Ha'i" was to the sound of the South Seas.

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