david marquez

‘In the Heights’: Overheated, undercooked

Stumptown Stages' production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning musical fails to ignite

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.

Stumptown Stages' 'In the Heights' closes this weekend at Brunish Theater.

Stumptown Stages’ ‘In the Heights’ closes this weekend at Brunish Theater.

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.

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