In the Heights
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 16, 2008
I'm sad to have to report that the new musical In the Heights did not make me happy. I know a lot of folks are excited about this show, but I was very disappointed by its scattershot book and production.
I was very impressed, though, by the talented cast, and so let me talk to you about them. It seems like there are at least three or maybe four or five Theatre-Stars-in-the-Making in In the Heights, and their presences are what audiences are likely responding to. First and foremost is the show's creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, heretofore probably best known for his work with the hip-hop comedy troupe Freestyle Love Supreme. Miranda wrote the music and and lyrics for this show, and portrays Usnavi, a bodega owner of Dominican descent who is the story's narrator and main character. Miranda is ingratiating, slyly funny, and charmingly understated as he lets loose his skills as rapper, singer, and dancer; he's also decidedly generous, giving his co-stars plenty of time and room to shine in his show, which is above all else a valentine to the Washington Heights neighborhood where he grew up.
Mandy Gonzalez, whose resume includes the ill-fated musicals Dance of the Vampires and Lennon, has the principal female role, as Nina, a young woman who has just returned from her freshman year at Stanford. The whole neighborhood has been rooting for Nina to be the first to escape the barrio with a high-profile college degree, but Nina bears disappointing news. Gonzalez has star quality to spare in this role, and gets at least one terrific, touching moment when she sings "Everything I Know," reflecting on what she's learned in her short life.
Christopher Jackson plays Gonzalez's love interest, an ambitious fellow named Benny who works for Nina's parents in their limousine business. Jackson's a triple threat, with expertise as actor, singer, and dancer; he cuts loose in a group number about dreams of winning the lottery called "96,000" that showcases his gifts neatly (though briefly).
And in smaller roles, Andrea Burns and Seth Stewart heat the place up big time. Burns plays Daniela, owner of the beauty salon next door to Usnavi's store; she's comic relief for most of the show (does Burns really speak in the Charo-esque heavily accented dialect that she uses here?), but in the second act, she cuts loose in the show's best number, "Carnaval del Barrio," and proves herself the most powerful singer on stage. Stewart plays Graffiti Pete, a romantic version of a street graffiti artist; he's the show's star dancer, and when he gets to show off his moves, he's often heart-stopping.
The terrific and formidable Priscilla Lopez (of Chorus Line and Day in Hollywood fame) plays Nina's mother and brings some class to the proceedings. She has only one song to sing (and almost never gets to dance), which is a tragic waste of her talents. But she's not alone, for the main problem with In the Heights is that, good as everyone is in it, no one has quite enough wonderful stuff to do.
Dancing is seriously inhibited by Anna Louizos's unwieldy set, which puts two multi-story buildings onto the Richard Rodgers stage and mostly pretty much fills it with them. I kept expecting them to do tricks or at least pull back the way the barricades in Les Miz did, but they don't. What they do is prevent Stewart and the other fine dancers on stage from having enough room for the fancy footwork they ought to be executing. (The background drop depicting the George Washington Bridge is lovely, though.)
The big emotional or cathartic song I kept hoping for never happens either; Miranda seems to be so worried about his show's complicated plot that he never really lets the show stop to catch its breath. Only Nina's lovely second act song takes us away from the busy story, while many of the numbers feel like opera recitative, so brimming with exposition and developments are they.
And the thematic lift that I was waiting for is sabotaged by Quiara Alegria Hudes's thin, sitcom-like book. I think Miranda wants In the Heights to be a celebration of his upbringing, his heritage, and his old neighborhood, and in places it is. But the storylines subvert the feel-good mood, delving into Nina's family crisis, another character's determination to leave the barrio at any cost, and the "powerless"-ness of this community when a blackout hits and Con Edison says it will be days before the lights go back on. Bleak and/or misguided events and choices undermine the message of optimism and hopefulness that Miranda seems to be preaching. I left the show confused as to what I was supposed to take from it.
Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler exacerbate that problem with staging and blocking that is chaotic and unfocused. In the big group numbers, I never knew where I was supposed to be looking, and I never really understood what the characters were supposed to be doing or feeling when they moved or danced.
I love the idea of In the Heights, and I think Miranda's voice as performer and writer needs to be heard on the NYC stage. But this show is a jumble of ideas, some of them interesting, many others quite mundane or cliched. In the Heights has got a beat; it's got energy. But it's finally so much less than it ought to have been!