note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
“In the Heights,” the multi-award winning musical, has several high points, with its slick, fast-paced choreography and Latino-tinged tunes that blend salsa, hip-hop, merengue and romantic rhythms in a tale of an ever-changing New York barrio. While the story is simple, providing a bird’s-eye view of a Latino neighborhood, where everyone knows everyone else’s name and business --- like the friendly, caring, pre-World War II multicultural American neighborhoods throughout America --- this production also has a talented cast. Every actor sings well, their voices soaring above the spicy-hot rhythms of playwright-composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pleasant songs, which Music Director Alex Lacamoire and group perform with the precise amount of sugar and spice.
Most noteworthy is Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, which this talented cast performs with gusto.
Also, Anna Louizos’ set, with its seedy storefronts, dingy tenements, fire escapes, stone steps and stoops, subway entrances, and subtle skyway, along with Howell Binkley’s dramatic lighting, is authentic looking and eye-catching.
What’s missing in “In the Heights” is the drama of displaced immigrants, fighting to make it in the barrio, where the opportunity to move upward and out is scant. In the Heights, most people are content, even though the world is changing around them and their little neighborhood is winnowing down, diluting its homey genre. Neighbors have pinned their hopes on pretty, bright Nina, only child of struggling owners of a taxi-transportation service,who won a scholarship to prestigious Stanford University in California. What Nina’s parents and neighbors don’t know, but she has come home to reveal, is she dropped out of school after losing her scholarship because she worked two jobs to pay for her books, and therefore couldn’t maintain her grades. Nina also becomes romantically involved with her dad’s longtime employee, Benny, who isn’t Latino but black, and whom her father considers inferior.
The street buzzes with gossip at Daniela’s Hair Salon, and with other romances blooming. Mild storeowner Usnavi (whom his deceased parents had unwittingly named after the first US name they saw- U.S. Navy), is smitten with sexy, long-haired Vanessa, who works in the salon, and is in debt. As their stories unfold, we also meet Usnavi’s charming, much beloved Abuela Claudia, who raised him, and whom Elise Santora portrays flawlessly, stealing the audience’s hearts.
Arielle Jacobs as Nina is sweet, sincere, while Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer as Vanessa and Isabel Santiago as Daniela are fiery; Kyle Beltran delivers surprisingly slick hip-hop as Usnavi, and Rogelio Douglas Jr. is impressive as Benny; Shaun Taylor-Corbett provides laughs as union-waving Cousin Sonny; and the rest of this cast also shines throughout.
Despite the show’s humorous and touching moments --- from romance to family sacrifice; a power outage during a sweltering July 4th; a store break-in; Abuela Claudia’s winning the lotto and Nina’s parents relinquishing their business to pay for her tuition, to name a few --- it saunters along, from one saucy number to another, but without the dramatic clout that should be inherent here. The emphasis seems to be more on singing and dancing. Regardless, “In the Heights” is a colorful, rhythmic walk through a fading neighborhood, where everyone knows everybody, family is supreme, and the American Dream is just beyond the horizon.
BOX INFO: Two-act, 2008 Tony, Grammy award winning musical, among others; music, lyrics and play conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda; book by Quiara Alegria Hudes; directed by Thomas Kail; appearing through January 24 at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St., Boston. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday, at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2,8 p.m. Sunday, 2,7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30-$91. For more information, visit broadwayacrossamerica.com or call 866-523-7469.