Saturday, September 18, 2010

Light and sweet

The first time you see In the Heights you're mostly just puzzled by the false starts and stumbles in the plot. Everyone agrees that it's formulaic, but the real problem is that it doesn't follow through on the formulas it adopts. I mean, formulas are formulas for a reason. It's sort of like watching an improv performance where the actors aren't picking up on each other's cues: you think you know where the story is going, and then it just...doesn't.

If you go back to In the Heights a second time -- at least if you're me -- you'll find yourself attempting to figure out where the plotting goes wrong, and the more you think about it the more confused you'll become. "Didn't this show have a long workshop period?" You'll think to yourself. "What in the world did they spend all that time doing, if it wasn't asking obvious questions like, 'Why can't Nina just go someplace a little more affordable than Stanford? Like, any other college?' or 'Why does the lottery win end up being almost irrelevant, when it seems like it ought to drive the whole story?'" It's maddening -- but then a really good number will come along and you'll forget all that for a while. The real dramatic tension and emotional content is all in the songs, and maybe it never goes anywhere, but it's moving just the same.

Last week I made my third visit to In the Heights -- I blogged about my first trip here at Restricted View, and I reviewed it a year later for Commonweal (when I compared it, very favorably, to the terrible Broadway revival of West Side Story). The musical, while still one of the better musical-theatre experiences on Broadway for my money, is starting to show signs of neglect. It could use a visit from the (or any) director and choreographer, to spruce up some of the musical staging -- and light a fire under a few performers, too.

When I recapped the 2008 Tony Awards broadcast for Television Without Pity, I wrote this:
10:58: Time for the final award: Best Musical. Why is this so important? Well, the last five shows to win Best Musical -- Spring Awakening, Jersey Boys, Spamalot, Avenue Q and Hairspray -- are all still running on Broadway, while many, many others have come and gone. So which of this year's four nominees will be stunt-casting its leads in 2013? In the Heights!
You will notice that Jersey Boys is the only one of those five winners still on Broadway in 2010: times have been tough. And In the Heights has already started casting from television -- although, to be fair, that's not automatically a bad thing in this case; an American Idol contestant might well be at home in this show, provided they can act and can handle eight performances a week. I'd love to be able to tell you whether Jordin Sparks meets those requirements, but I can't, because she was out the day I saw the show. The folks in charge broke that news to the audience as sneakily as possible: instead of a program insert that said "At this performance the role of Nina will be played by..." they had an insert listing "The Cast at this Performance." The whole cast, with no indication of the changes. You had to compare it to the list printed in the Playbill to figure out who was missing. (The display in the lobby was similarly coy.)

I've never seen a single episode of American Idol, and I wouldn't know Jordin Sparks if I tripped over her, so I didn't much care one way or the other. And her understudy, Gabrielle Ruiz, was just fine -- I can't imagine Sparks would've been better. But I felt very sorry for Ruiz when she made her first entrance, rather late in the first act, because you could sense the surprise and disappointment coming from those audience members who were hoping to see Sparks and had failed to put together all the relevant clues before the start of the performance. So that, perhaps, accounted for some of the missing energy. And the fact that it was a Sunday matinee (of a show that has Sunday-night and Monday-night performances) probably didn't help. I wondered, would it have been better to tell people outright that Sparks wasn't going to appear? Get the disappointment out of the way upfront, before the show even started? I only know it would have made her poor understudy's job easier if she didn't have to break the news personally just by stepping onto the stage. I felt sorry for her, having to win the audience over after that.

In theory, there are lots of ways In the Heights could go in casting famous faces without necessarily damaging the integrity of the show. Because the plot concerns a number of characters' stories (and does a bad job following them through), it's hard to say who the main character is. When the show opened it was obviously Usnavi, but once Lin-Manuel Miranda left the cast, Usnavi's centrality was less of a given. Miranda's dual role as creator and star gave the show a lot of heart that isn't evident when another actor, even a very good one, takes on the part: it turns out Usnavi is kind of a blank, and his "dream" is the least well-defined of any in the script. So it might make sense for the "star" to be Nina (the character now featured on the cover of the Playbill), but you could also make a case for Benny, or Vanessa, depending on who's available to step into the cast. The show could keep going for a while -- but only with some direction to keep it alive and well.

The strongest performances in the show right now come from two of the original Broadway cast members, both in small roles: Andréa Burns is still hamming it up as salon-owner Daniela, and I can't get enough of Eliseo Román as Piragua Guy. Not only does he have a beautiful singing voice and a terrific solo number; his character's throughline is the most solid in the show. You know what he wants; you know what the problem is; he gets what he wants; you share his joy. Very simple, very satisfying.

In the original cast, Robin De Jesús and Janet Dacal, as Sonny and Carla, respectively, struck me as dangerously close to over-the-top. The characters are very broad, and their performances, while very competent and very funny, were maybe too broad. Their replacements, on the other hand, are underplaying the roles to the point of dullness -- especially Courtney Reed, who plays ditzy Carla like she's auditioning for The Three Sisters. They could both use a jolt of inspiration.

Unfortunately, the weakest spots in the cast are still the actors playing the "grownups," and two of the three have been in the show from the beginning. It makes the whole thing feel uncannily like a high-school play (where the older characters are automatically the least convincing). Sometimes I wonder if I was too mean when I first wrote about the show and complained about how unbelievably bad "Abuela Claudia" was. But I've seen it three times now, always with the same (Tony-nominated!) actor in the role (and with a different companion in the seat next to me), and each time I find myself so embarrassed by the performance that I actually have to look away from the stage. (At which point my companion, without fail, always turns to me and mouths, "Oh my GOD, she's SO BAD!") I keep praying they'll recast the part, but for now I can only fantasize about how much better the show would be with a good (or even not-bad) actor in that role. Let's just say I'm fairly certain it would be a positive thing if I could experience something other than relief in the show's eleventh hour. But hey, I guess they're saving on having to repaint that mural...

There are subtle ways in which the material is showing its age, although I don't think they're enough to dull the show's impact. One of my favorite jokes -- Benny's delicate correction of Nina's reverie about the "one-slash-nine": "There's no nine train now..." -- is a lot less funny than it was two years ago. The recession makes the threat of impending gentrification seem contrived. And believe it or not, solid-roll down gates for storefronts are on their way out in New York. (On the other hand, Sonny's outburst about how "racism in this country's gone from latent to blatant!" has never sounded more current.) Slowly and inevitably, In the Heights is becoming a period piece, and when Usnavi raps about the demise of his neighborhood -- "Maybe this neighborhood's changing forever / Maybe tonight is our last night together..." -- it seems as though he could be talking about the show itself.

But that's unlikely to occur to anyone seeing it for the first time, or seeing it without my hypercritical instincts. Mostly ITH just feels like it needs a little TLC: the choreography has gotten a bit sloppy; the microphones and orchestra felt out of balance; the dialogue has gotten so mechanical that nobody notices when the best jokes fail to get a laugh. It's starting to get that fuzzy photocopy-of-a-photocopy feel, which is lethal for a show like this, when freshness and energy are its major assets. So Thomas Kail, Andy Blankenbuehler, anybody: send help! Because this is a show that has life left in it -- and once it goes, it's going to be awfully hard to revive.

P.S. I've written about this show so many times I gave it its own category. Here's a link to all my In the Heights blog posts; knock yourself out.

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