New York City Theater
"In the Heights"
37 Arts, Manhattan
Exuberance, joy, and a tribute to a neighborhood! Such are the elements of “In the Heights,” which has just burst upon the off-Broadway scene. The show celebrates the Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights, that northwest corner of Manhattan that overlooks the George Washington Bridge. Written and conceived (as well as starring) 27-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show reverberates with the freshness and optimism of youth. In fact, all the show’s key figures are young—29-year-old book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes and 30-year-old director Thomas Kail, as well as Miranda himself.
Fresh, yes, but also derivative. Miranda is the first to admit the influences of “West Side Story,” “Rent,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” As in past shows, there are the star-crossed lovers from different backgrounds, the sense of family, the emphasis on one ethnic group.
But what is fresh is that, at last, a musical deals with the current Latinos of Manhattan, and deals in a positive way. The characters sing, dance, love, fight, suffer, dream, all in a one-block area, with its bodega, beauty salon, limo service, and tenements. One could argue that the story should be darker, more realistic. In real life, the road, for this particular immigrant group, has not, in fact, been paved with yellow bricks, notwithstanding Miranda’s take on it all. Racism aimed at the Latino newcomers has added to the usual bigotry.
But Miranda and Hudes have chosen to emphasis the bright side. There’s always street-dancing and celebrations. And some one’s lottery ticket pays off with $96,000, which is shared generously. And the lovers will win out, without stabbings or deaths. The worst problems in the Heights are limited funds and black-outs during the summer’s heat.
But the production works, with its highly professional staging, choreography, and music. Miranda’s music, which dips into many genres (in particular hip-hop and Latin beats), is infectious. And Kail directs a company of fine dancers and performers, which pours its energies into the numbers. As for performers, Miranda himself creates a delightful Usnavi (yes, that is his name—named after the writing on a navy ship). Karen Olivo is a knock-out as a beautician/dancer/dreamer, and Robin de Jesus adds much local color as a Latino kid. Mandy Gonzalez and Christopher Jackson are appealing as the young lovers, and Priscilla Lopez, as the mother, gives the flawless performance one has come to expect of her. But it is Olga Merediz who brings the most depth and humanity to the production. She plays the loving grandmother, Abuela (grandmother in Spanish), stepping in as surrogate parent to her grandsons. It is she who most poignantly expresses the feeling of a newcomer to a foreign land.
In all, “In the Heights” is a welcome addition to the off-Broadway scene. One hopes this new musical will be charming audiences for a long time to come.
-- Irene Backalenick
February 17, 2007