In Town/On Stage

In the Heights

Beneath the song and dance pyrotechnics, it feels like home.

By Alexis Rehrmann July 24, 2012

At the salon, under the ubiquitous yellow awning that says only “Unisex Salon”, with actors Lexi Lawson, Isabel Santiago, Arielle Jacobs, and Genny Lis Padilla

In the Heights is the latest Broadway tour to take roost at the Keller Auditorium, where it plays through Sunday.

I was very lucky to catch last night’s boisterous performance with a bona fide teenager in tow.

And she LOVED it. “That was tight,” my teenage compatriot pronounced authoritatively as we shuffled out of the red-carpeted aisles after 2 hours and 30 minutes of boisterous, latin-infused song and dance. “Tight!” She uttered spontaneously several times during the show, responding to a sensational dance move, or a big ol’ Broadway belt of an 11th hour number.

I’m inclined to feel kindly towards a play that can put kids in the seats. So…sold!

In the Heights is a new musical set over Fourth of July in Washington Heights, a scrappy, latino neighhorhood in north Manhattan. Composer and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical won four Tony Awards including Best Musical. In the Heights sizzles in hot pants, merengue moves, young love’s yearning and burning, and reggaeton beats, all set during the blackout heat of a summer in the city.

Go For

Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography goes down like candy and flows like silk whether the dance calls for hip-hop street moves, classical modern phrases, or a bouquet of latin steps like salsa, and merengue. There is ample opportunity to spotlight individual dancers—Graffiti Pete (Jose-Luis Lopez) is a standout—as well as to get sucked into the vivid ensemble numbers.

Big, fun Grammy-winning music. I particularly liked the depth and breadth of showstoppers written for the women of Washington Heights. Young Nina (Arielle Jacobs), is home from college and struggling, and her voice runs through octaves with ease and clarity. Her mother, Camila (Natalie Toro) has a fantastic family call to action in “Enough”, and Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora) leads “Paciencia y Fe” in the costume of a grandmother, but with the full-throttle sound of a woman in her prime.

There is a streak of realism here under the glaze of musical optimism. In the Heights is a hopeful story about finding your home, and the onstage gains are life-sized. No one gets rich, no one gets whisked away to paradise on the wings of love, the characters’ triumphs are modest. At its core the musical is a slice of corner life polished up for the stage (With nods, hello theater nerds, to Elmer Rice’s 1929 “Street Scene”. Set entirely on an the stoop of a New York City brownstone. it won the Pulitzer, and changed the game ).

Two Caveats

The Keller’s acoustics make it hard to understand all of the lyrics. In a musical that relies on the (charming, smooth, totally engaging performance of) Usnavi, the rapping/singing main character (Joseph Morales), it’s frustrating to lose those story details.

I’ve got to wonder if the actors were also a little frustrated, singing their hearts out, wondering why the Portland audience was missing half the jokes. That wide mouth stage really swallows the vocal sound, and makes the communication more general than the artists intended.

It’s Broadway. It does the expected. Which, depending on how you look at it, is either good or bad. In the Heights delivers big talent in big doses (27 cast members in a group salsa number is ALWAYS a thrill), and the well-told story is never trite but neither is it wholly surprising. It feels like home, I suppose, and underneath the song and dance pyrotechnics, this is exactly what its authors intended.

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