It’s hot in the Heights. It’s summer, and many of the apartments in Nueva York’s working class Washington Heights neighborhood — home to mix of very different Latino cultures: Dominican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, more — lack air conditioning. Neighbors swelter on stoops, score cafe con leche at the bodega, frequent the salon and the frozen treat vendor.
The heat is on in their lives, too. The family owned taxi company can barely pay its drivers (and this was before Uber!). Nina, the pride of the ‘hood, a smart student who got into Stanford, returns home for the summer sweltering under the pressure of a secret disappointment. Another is falling behind in her rent.
That’s the colorful, heated world of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakthrough musical, whose sold-out run ends May 1 at Portland5’s Brunish Theater. Miranda’s affectionate evocation of the neighborhood next door to the one he grew up in, along with its authentically multicultural musical mashup of salsa, hip hop and more, immerses the audience in a richly evoked world we want to know more about.
One of the first musicals to successfully bring hip hop to Broadway, In the Heights (which collected four 2008 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, not to mention a smattering of Olivier Awards for a British run) sometimes pulls it off so adeptly that it makes me wonder what took so long (well, not really — much of American theater until very recently has been effectively an apartheid zone) to bring this powerfully musical style to theater. Rap’s hardly much of a leap from other musicalized theater-speech, from recitative to sprechstimme, singspiel to Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs. The hip hop elements here evoke the Heights in our ears just as Demetri Paviatos’s vibrant set does for our eyes.
But like other shows, from Kurt Weill’s Street Scene to David Hare’s recent Behind the Beautiful Forevers, this one focuses so much on limning a world that it fails to tell a compelling story. Miranda embarked on In the Heights when he was a college sophomore at the beginning of this century, and as with many first plays or novels or symphonies, its creator’s attempt to cram everything he loves about the ethnically diverse upper Manhattan neighborhood (which he even covered as a student journalist for a summer) leaves too little time or room to sufficiently develop any of its characters and their stories.
The show opens with extended sequences that introduce us to the protracted parade of characters, via songs that all might have been subtitled “Here’s my motivation!” making us wait too long for the action to really ignite. Quiara Alegría Hudes’s weak book too frequently relies on clunky and/or cliched plot devices; for example, a well-endowed Stanford wouldn’t come up with sufficient financial aid for Nina? (Recent studies have shown that money isn’t necessarily the major problem for first-generation college students, but that wouldn’t have worked as a plot complication for this story.) A deus ex machina lottery ticket resolves complications too easily, rather than further complicating lives as in, say August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson or Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, to name a couple of the other Broadway ghosts (Rent, West Side Story and more) that too-obviously haunt this one. Once it catches fire, the second act, which Miranda substantially rewrote when the show moved to Broadway, feels tighter and stronger, even though it generally wraps up plot lines with sentimental cliches.
Cliches also mar Miranda’s sometimes Disneyfied lyrics, at least what I could hear of them. And like just about every pop musical form adapted for the Broadway stage, the music (whether it’s because of limp arrangements or performances) too often feels diluted compared to authentic salsa and rap. Ditto the admittedly exuberant dancing, constrained by the Brunish’s tiny stage, which is overstuffed as much as the musical’s overabundant plot lines. Neither approaches the power and quality performances displayed in Artist Repertory Theatre’s recent Cuba Libre, a far more professional production that otherwise fell victim to some of In the Heights’s dramatic flaws.
Along with conceiving the story and writing the music and lyrics, the multi talented Miranda himself — who has a background in hip hop improv comedy and music — starred in the original production, and while Michel Castillo makes an intermittently engaging protagonist, the underwritten role of Usnavi is easily lost amid the competing subplots, much as his raps are obscured by the live band, at least from where I was sitting. Real rapping with audible volume and articulation is hard, and sound balance seems to be a chronic problem at the Brunish, where I’ve yet to hear it work well no matter where the band is positioned. The rest of the enthusiastic performers, evidently cast more for their singing and dancing ability than their acting, lack the thespic chops to make us care about these thinly sketched characters, not that they have much to work with.
Director / choreographer David Marquez somehow keeps the action mostly clear despite the confined space, his big group dance numbers briefly wash away multiple theatrical sins, and admittedly, the culminating reveal is nevertheless genuinely moving, though would have been more so if it really involved characters we cared about.
And yet, despite the show’s dramatic and other shortcomings, there’s still something irresistible about such a non-caricatured portrait of real working people from communities whose actual lives — preoccupied with the usual financial and other pressures rather than the stereotypical gang violence that disproportionately dominates both headlines and entertainment world portrayals — we so seldom see onstage. It’s still thrilling to hear the characters speaking Spanglish so fluidly that it sounds real (some knowledge of Spanish is helpful but by no means required), and similarly, to hear salsa and rap almost magically merging with (unfortunately often sentimental) show tunes in Miranda’s music.
The seams show, sure, and the world Miranda evokes is more interesting than anything that happens in it here. But for all its first-timer stumbles, In the Heights still occasionally pulses with the excitement that we’re getting a glimpse of the future onstage — not just of the culturally diverse 21st century America that’s just around the corner, but also of a newly reinvigorated American theater, and of a tremendously promising creative talent whose next show (after he’d gotten the autobiographical excess out of his system, and learned more about telling stories on stage) was obviously gonna be really big. The real heat of In the Heights doesn’t emanate from anything combustible onstage or on the page, but instead from the spark it’s lighting.
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