Monday, March 24, 2008

Review of "In The Heights"

“In the Heights,” last season’s critical and commercial Off-Broadway hit, has now transferred to Broadway where its vibrancy and pulsating rhythms ignite the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The show, with touches of joy and sorrow, focuses on the changing lives that affect a small street corner in the Washington Heights area of New York City. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star as well as composer, serves as ringmaster/narrator from his small bodega (a tiny grocery store) in the neighborhood around 181st and Broadway. There, he dispenses coffee and advice while also pursuing the love of his life. But his story is just one of many artfully woven together by librettist Quiara Alegria Hudes. The flow of the musical has an organic earthiness to it, where the action has an intuitive ebb and flow.

The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler exemplifies this point. Where most Broadway musicals telegraph the big production number, the dances of “In The Heights” evolve naturally within the plot lines. They are street smart and dynamic, giving the audience a feel for the latino culture on Manhattan’s northern boundary.

The cast is uniformily superb and while all deserve praise and mention, the real standouts include Lin-Manuel Miranda as Usnavi (Think U.S. Navy. The joke is explained in the show), Mandy Gonzalez as Nina, the one who’s brains and drive allowed her to escape her past; Robin De Jesus, a buddy, partner and comic foil all wrapped up in one; and Olga Merediz as the old sage of the block, Abuela. Even more noteworthy are the raw emotions these actors and actresses are able to generate. For most musicals my connection with the performers is usually muted. In “In The Heights” I deeply cared what would happen to the character’s lives, which further drew me into their world.

The score by Lin-Manual Miranda is exhilarating and of the moment. Combining salsa, latin rhythms and rap, Miranda successfully manages to introduce to the Broadway masses the music and sounds heard throughout Washington Heights. What’s more, was the delivery of each song. The ballads are heartfelt and the uptempo numbers seethe with urgency.

Keeping all the swirling components of the show working like clockwork is Director Thomas Kail. In less assured hands, the musical could become conventional or prosaic. But Kail, expertly collaborating with his other creative partners, makes “In The Heights” anything but pedestrian.

“In The Heights,” a show that gives this Broadway season something to rave about.

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