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A CurtainUp Review
In the Heights
— Original review by Jerry Weinstein
Actually, I'm being lazy to namedrop Spring Awakening. What Heights should be compared with is Rent, Jonathan Larson's updating of La Boheme, which became a signature soundtrack for the eighties, embedding the AIDS epidemic and the gentrification of the lower East Side. In the Heights is also about real estate travails (here, the neighborhood is Washington Heights), but it is equally about tradition and persistence.
Set during one Fourth of July weekend, Heights is a tour de force for composer Miranda's virtuosic musical skills, and a valentine to both the old neighborhood and his family. His lyrics and flow are revelatory. Miranda is also the musical's narrator, Usnavi (a pun that made my companion recall Pedro Juan Soto's 1959 novel Usmail (get it?). His presence gives the musical specificity.
Heights opens with the return of star pupil Nina from Stanford, the first in her family to climb the trellis of the Ivy wall. Her parents, the Rosarios, have a taxi business that's on the verge of bankruptcy. Meanwhile, our narrator, Usnavi, runs a bodega while pining for the lovely Vanessa and caretaking his Abuela (grandmother). Besides the cab dispatch and Usnavi's shop, there is a beauty shop where gossip comes free with shampoo. The set, a Red Grooms affair that is less photographic reproduction than an imprinted memory, does more than frame the narrative; it embodies the music and the calor (heat) that Miranda and book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes have striven to achieve.
While there are minor technical flaws to this production — an uneven sound mix, a few missed beats in key plot points — there is joy, even ecstacy, here. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler has created a fusion of styles (freestyling to salsa and meringue and reggaetón) which honor the past even as they authentically capture the present era. Likewise, Miranda's lyrics mashup references from Cole Porter to La Playa Rincon (a beach in the Dominican Republic). A percussive energy permeates every scene, every lyric and every gesture. Overall this musical is closer to a double album than a string of singles. Each musical number is strong, particularly "Atencion" and the show's opener "In the Heights."
In the Heights is a welcome antidote to cynicism. Not that it's saccharine. It is chock full of struggles, misfires, and turnabouts, but, like Abuela Claudio's (the show-stopping Olga Merediz) song "Pacienza Y Fe" (patience and faith), this is a tale about perseverance. While one business is forced to relocate to "Da Bronx", another shutters, only to be reinvented. A third defies the trend of gentrification and evolves into a community center.
Director Thomas Kail, who has shepherded the musical since it first appeared as a student production at Wesleyan, provides discipline to the talented cast — triangulating this outsize production between acting, music, dance while making it look effortless. Christopher Jackson as Benny is the single-best reason for Brian Stokes Mitchell to watch his back. Andrea Burns (Daniela) and Robin De Jesus (Sonny) provide a well-calibrated comic infusion; their wit and slow takes adding to the show's depth. Ingenues Mandy Gonzalez as Nina and Karen Olivo as Vanessa inhabit their roles with confidence muted by vulnerability. And powerhouse Olga Merediz as Abuela is likely to be this year's Jane Houdyshell (the scene stealing mom of Lisa Kron's Well).
In the Heights is heartfelt if not as glossy as Rent . It recognizes the power of oral traditions and that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. The standing ovation at the performance I attended signals its appeal to anyone — of any ethnicity — who strives for a better future or who recalls a bittersweet past.
Reviewed on February 7, 2007, at when In the Heighs played at 37 Arts, 450 West 37th Street (btw 9th and 10th Avenues) where it was 2 hours with an intermission and ran six months, to 7/15/07