Theater review: 'In the Heights' at Pantages Theatre
“In the Heights” won the 2008 Tony Award for best musical, undoubtedly earning points for congeniality in its underdog victory. If a sweeter, friendlier, more determinedly upbeat show has appeared on Broadway in the last few years, it carried the Disney label.
This salute to the bodega-dotted Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights turns the soap opera struggles of Latino tenement dwellers into an occasion for a salsa-swinging block party. (Even when trouble hits, it’s a beautiful day in the barrio.) Conceived by the eminently likable composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has a leading role in the cast, the show brings a multicultural sound and sensibility to what is ultimately a very conventional feel-good musical experience.
Wednesday’s lively opening at the Pantages included a curtain call speech by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, welcoming the cast to L.A. and underscoring the universal appeal of these "immigrant" tales. The characters here are mostly Dominican and Puerto Rican, but anyone with a strong ethnic identification (Mexican, Korean, Armenian, you name it) will be able to relate.
“In the Heights” goes out of its way to please, and succeeds mostly through its musical fluidity, the way Miranda gives a community its voice through a mélange of hip-hop, Latin pop and old-fashioned Broadway schmaltz. Song by song, the score may not be especially distinguished (Miranda has a penchant for sunrises, sunsets, fireworks and other clichés). Yet cumulatively, the numbers tell a classic American story, and Miranda’s lyrics -- fragrant with café con leche and evoking distant Caribbean memories and the unavoidable subway swelter -- provide a refreshing urban update.
The downside to “In the Heights” — and it’s a considerable one— is the book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, which is overstuffed and oversimplified. Surveying the hopes and fears of assimilation, the musical (laid out on Anna Louizos' nifty street set) stumbles to keep tabs on the breakthroughs and setbacks of those who live and work in this tightknit corner of the city.
The problem isn’t a lack of realism in these vignettes, which aspire to match the broadness of a street mural, but in a shortfall of narrative sharpness. Content to dabble in familiar patterns of storytelling, Hudes doesn’t so much renew old plot strands as dust them off. Her dialogue’s Spanish-flavored idioms pep things ups, but too many dramatic sentiments come straight from the can.
Fortunately, the music is there to rescue the work from its staleness. And the hard-working cast, under the direction of Thomas Kail and the energetic choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler, contains some powerhouse voices. The acting could use some modulation, but it would be hard to assemble a more agreeable ensemble.
Miranda plays Usnavi (a few matinees feature a different actor), the romantically skittish bodega owner who’s infatuated with Vanessa (Sabrina Sloan, performing through July 4), an attractive employee at the beauty salon next door. She’s desperate to move downtown to the Village, away from her alcoholic mother and the other problems she associates with her neighborhood, but a bad credit score is thwarting her escape plan.
Meanwhile, Nina (Arielle Jacobs) is back from Stanford University with some bad news for her parents (played by Danny Bolero and Natalie Toro), who own a small taxi and limousine business. She’s lost her scholarship, dropped out of school and, even more distressing for them, fallen for Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.), a good-natured and ambitious employee of theirs with distinct disadvantages — he’s not from the same cultural background (and can speak hardly a word of Spanish) and his prospects aren’t exactly Ivy League.
In the opening “In the Heights” number, Usnavi raps about how “everybody's stressed, yes, but they press through the mess / Bounce checks and wonder what's next.” He struggles to live up to the example of Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora), the woman who taught him the value of paciencia y fe (patience and faith), the title of her big number and the show’s heartwarming philosophy. His continuing education in this area is aided by Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett), the impish kid who works for him and keeps pressing him to embrace the love around him.
Given the centrality of the bodega in the tale, it’s no surprise that a lottery ticket plays a crucial role in the plot, which gets a bit blurry in the second act. Yes, a blackout leads to the musical’s climax, but the fuzziness has more to do with the clumsy proportions between sketch and song. Toward the end, momentum turns to haste -- a sure sign that the creators know their formula is off.
But “In the Heights” makes it difficult to hold its shortcomings against it. The ensemble soars when singing, and Miranda’s bright musical talent is worth getting to know. (Luckily for us, he seems in it for the long haul.) And as the mayor pointed out, this is an American saga that will touch all of us who have chased dreams while yearning to preserve a sense of home.
-- Charles McNulty
"In the Heights," Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 25. $25 to $85. (800) 982-2787 or www.BroadwayLA.org. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.
Photos: Top: Sabrina Sloan, Isabel Santiago, Arielle Jacobs and Genny Lis Padilla. Credit: Janet Macoska. Bottom: Lin-Manuel Miranda. Credit: Joan Marcus