Tuesday, June 10, 2008

From such great heights

A few days ago I was talking to a friend about In the Heights, which I'd just seen. "It feels really...fresh," I told him. "That's just what so-and-so said," he replied. Another friend and theatre enthusiast came along a minute later and heard us mention the show. "I liked it!" he said. "It's really fresh."

There's a reason that word keeps coming up. A new musical on Broadway that isn't a direct or indirect attempt to recreate the success of something else, full of sounds, sights, faces and subjects that you don't expect to find on a Broadway stage! In the Heights is all that, and it feels completely new and borderline miraculous. And it's all the more amazing that Lin-Manuel Miranda (who wrote the songs, came up with the concept and plays the central role) and the rest of the creative team have managed to make something fresh out of such familiar ingredients. There's one other word I've heard applied to this show in casual conversations, and that word is "formulaic." And make no mistake, the book of In the Heights is as old-fashioned and formulaic as they come. But somehow that doesn't take away from the exhilaration of seeing this show come to life onstage -- in fact, the show's reliance on tried-and-true storytelling and musical-theatre convention provide a solid footing for its more inventive elements.

The show is set in New York City, but not the fantasy, once-upon-a-time New York of On the Town or Wonderful Town or even West Side Story. It's set in a neighborhood that feels totally authentic and totally current, populated by people I could have seen on the subway this weekend, heading for the Puerto Rican Day parade. Miranda's music collects the various sounds of that neighborhood, Latin music and hip-hop and people shouting in Spanglish, and turns them into a vehicle for telling a story. Yes, the book can make the Washington Heights block in question feel a bit too much like Sesame Street, but the music, the set, the costumes, the dancing all have an up-to-the minute rawness that makes the characters hard to resist.

Compared to Miranda's accomplished and inventive score, Quiara Alegria Hudes's book underwhelms and underperforms, but she has managed to salt the dialogue with Spanish in a way that usually feels authentic, rather than stiff and hokey. The plot is largely predictable, and most of the major plot points are telegraphed noisily long before they occur. There are a few surprising twists, moments when the plot seems poised to shoot off in a new and unanticipated direction, but they fizzle out almost as quickly as they occur. I don't want to give anything away, but there's a moment when it becomes clear that one character is about to come into some major luck, but you don't know who. I assumed the rest of the show would make much dramatic hay out of the difficult question of which character most deserves it. But...it didn't; the revelation in the second act was practically an afterthought. So that was weird. But if the dramatic structure is weak, the other creative elements make up for it. Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography is magnificent. Most of the actors are wonderful, particularly Miranda himself and the two female leads, Karen Olivo and Mandy Gonzalez. The show would have a much greater emotional impact if all of the casting were as strong, but there are a couple of major weak spots. Carlos Gomez, as Kevin, is distractingly amateur; the first time he's left alone onstage he actually looks a little terrified by the prospect of singing his solo, and he's even less convincing when he's just a member of the ensemble (once, after singing a few lines during the first-act finale, he dropped character and started to walk offstage before the spotlight on him had even cut out). And I was completely gobsmacked when I found out, after I got home from the show, that Olga Merediz is Tony nominated in the role of Abuela Claudia. Every time she was onstage I felt like I was watching a high school play -- you know how there's always one heavyset teenager, eager but not very talented, who puts on an ill-fitting wig and paints some crow's-feet around his or her eyes and plays the show's resident elder? That's what her performance reminded me of. A nervous 16-year-old in a padded blouse playing Mrs. Brownlow in Oliver. A more commanding, controlled presence in either or both of those roles would help to make the plot as compelling as the choreography.

The show occasionally raises the specter of gentrification, redevelopment and class resentment, but wisely keeps any representatives of that world offstage. There are no outsider characters, no villains, for the residents of this neighborhood to react against, which prevents the audience from dividing into Us and Them. Everybody in the theatre identifies with Usnavi and Nina and Vanessa and the rest, without thinking about it; the familiar formulas are a way in for those patrons who, as the opening song jokes, never go above 96th Street. Meanwhile, there were a couple of large groups of kids there who looked like they might have come from Washington Heights -- or somewhere north of 96th -- the night I saw the show. I passed them on my way in to the theatre, as they were tittering with excitement; I heard their delighted bursts of laughter when they caught a joke in Spanish, or a reference to their country of origin, or a whiff of romance between the leading characters; I saw them clustered around the stage door, hoping to meet their new heroes, on my way home. And I could feel their energy throughout the performance, as they discovered how electrifying theatre can be; how it can illuminate your own experiences, how it can surprise you and make you laugh and cry and think; how amazing it is to watch super-talented performers acting, dancing and singing right in front of you. It doesn't matter what part of the city, or the world, you come from -- to see that version of New York life, of American life, on the Broadway stage is refreshing; and to see it celebrated on the Broadway stage is thrilling.

P.S. In his review, Michael Feingold does a lovely job of putting all this in the context of musical-theatre history.

UPDATE: I wrote a professional review of In the Heights for Commonweal (subscribers-only). To read other Restricted View posts about the show, click here.

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