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A CurtainUp Review
In the Heights

In the Heights On Broadway
In the heights
I've got today
And today's all we got, so we cannot stop,
This is our block

— from the title song that sets the scene and introduces the characters.

In the Heights
Robin de Jesùs, Karen Oliva and Lin-Manuel Miranda in In the Heights (Photo: Joan Marcus)
In the Heights tour guide
Javier Muñoz who took over the role of Usnavi on 2/16/09 (Photo: Joan Marcus)
When I saw this high energy show during its Off-Broadway run, it was already clear that this peppy, hip-hopping, hip swinging show was likely to dance all the way to Broadway. Jerry Weinstein's enthusiastic review (see below) was just one voice in a chorus of praise singing critics.

The idea of a big-time move was as irresistible as it was risky. On the plus side, here was a show that spoke to a young audience, with heretofore neglected Hispanic characters. It was new not only in terms of its ethnic identity but becasue the book, music and lyrics were created from the ground up rather than tied to a movie, a book, or established song hits. The hokey plot and the sanitized look and feel of this about to be gentrified ghetto in northernmost Manhattan (not a touch of graffiti, no drugs or other sense of danger) were not really a problem since that's what gave it the feelgood appeal of an old-fashioned musical

As for the risks: The cast, though talented, had no stars, except stars in the making. The size of that cast meant it would take a hefty budget to keep the show running (unlike Passing Strange, another musical, new in every way the musical genre can be new, that recently made the move from Off-Broadway to Broadway); there was also the question as to whether a show like this could attract enough of the tourists who figure so importantly in a producer's bottom line.

But the pluses outweighed the risk and by the time the six-month run ended, a move was more than a vague dream. It helped that the producers had plenty of experience taking atypical shows to the Rialto (Rent, Avenue Q and Drowsy Chaperone). They also had pockets deep enough to invest $10, million dollars.

Now this spicy musical has made the big leap. It's ensconced in the 1500-seat Richard Rodgers Theatre with its cast and creative team more or less intact. And, by golly it still answers to adjectives like vibrant, exuberant and compelling!

Except for a tweak here and a tweak there, the book remains a hokey collage without any especially unique tension and emotion building conflicts. The real leading character is the changing neighborhood which is about to lose many of its small businesses to gentrification. It's chief purpose is to serve a springboard for Lin-Manuel Miranda's zesty musical gumbo of rap, hip-hop, salsa, merengue, pop and traditional show tunes and for Andy Blankenbuehler's invigorating choreography. Miranda has added three songs which help to strengthen the second act story line. The title number which opens the show is still a knockout (but hardly the only one) and so are the singers and dancers.

Anna Louizos' lovely atmospheric set, complete with a light blinking George Washing Bridge, has grown to fill out the bigger space. With Howell Binkley on board the shifts in lighting throughout the show are sheer magic and enhance not just the sets but Paul Tazwell's colorful costumes. The band too has grown (from seven musicians to thirteen) and is now housed in a real orchestra pit and without the uneven sound mix problem of the 37Arts production.

With the performers for all but one of the singing and speaking parts on hand, the cast has made the move without a misstep. If anything, they're more integrated, and more animated and in tune with the material.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and his cousin Robin De Jesus again dish up lovable charm with cafe con leche. Mandy Gonzales and Christopher Jackson make a fine pair of semi-star crossed lovers. And since no traditional musical would be complete without a singing and dancing trio, we have a sassy group of beauticians— Daniela (Andrea Burns), the boss, Carla (Janet Dacal) and Vanessa (Karen Olivo).

This Manhattan street scene is rarely without a burst of performers exploding into another propulsive song and dance number. It gets to be almost too much and puts you at risk of getting overheated just from watching. Too bad there isn't a real Piragua guy like Eliseo Roman in the lobby to help you cool off with one of his mango-flavored snowballs.

Directed by Thomas Kail
Music & lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Music direction by Alex Lacamoire
Cast: Lin-Manuel Miranda (Usnavi), Andrea Burns (Daniela), Janet Dacal (Carla), Robin de Jesús (Sonny), Carlos Gomez (Kevin-originally played by John Herrera), Mandy Gonzalez (Nina), Christopher Jackson (Benny), Priscilla Lopez (Camila), Olga Merediz (Abuela Claudia), Karen Olivo (Vanessa), Eliseo Roman (Piragua Guy) and Seth Stewart (Graffiti Pete).
Ensemble: Tony Chiroldes,Rosie Lani Fiedelman,Joshua Henry, Afra Hines, Nina La Farga, Doreen Montalvo, Javier Munoz,Krysta Rodrigues, Eliseo Roman, Luis Salgado, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Rickey Tripp.
Swings: Michael Balderrama, Blanca Camacho, Rogelio Douglas Jr, Stephany Clemens
Arrangements by Bill Sherman
Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler
Set design by Anna Louizos
Costume design by Paul Tazewell
Lighting design Howell Binkley (formerlyJason Lyons)
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Running time: Approx, 2 hours and 20 minutes one intermission
Richard Rodgers Theatre 226 W. 46 St.
Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 2pm
From 2/14/08; opening 3/09/08
Tickets: $21.50 to $111.50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March 7th press performance

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • In the Heights/ Usnavi, Company
  • Breathe/Nina, Company
  • Benny's Dispatch /Benny, Nina
  • It Won't Be Long Now /Vanessa, Usnavi, Sonny
  • Inutil(useless) / Kevin
  • No Me Diga /Daniela, Carla, Vanessa, Nina
  • 96,000/ Usnavi, Benny, Sonny, Vanessa, Daniela, Carla, Company
  • Paciencia Y Fe/ Abuela Claudia, Company
  • When You're Home/ Nina, Benny, Company
  • Piragua/ Piragua Guy
  • Siempre (Always)/ Camilar
  • The Club/Fireworks/ Fireworks Company
Act Two
  • Sunrise / Nina, Benny, Company
  • Hundreds of Stories/ Abuela Claudia, Usnavi
  • Enough/Camilla
  • Carnaval del Barrio/Daniela andCompany
  • Atencion / Kevin
  • Alabanza/ Usnavi, Nina, Company
  • Everything I Know/ I Know Nina
  • No Mi Diga (Reprise)/Daniela, Carla, Vanesas
  • Champagne/Vanessa, Usn>avi
  • When the Sun Goes Down/Nina, Benny
  • Finale/ Usnavi, Company

— Original review by Jerry Weinstein

Does your cousin dance?

Like a drunk Chita Rivera.

— The girls at the beauty shop
In the Heights is this year's Spring Awakening. The musical is vital, compelling and, above all, authentic. But color me biased. I'm a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose improv/hiphop troupe, Freestyle Love Supreme, often plays Ars Nova to rousing effect. Last summer I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop of In the Heights and I knew that if producers opened up their hearts and wallets this show would court acclaim.

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
The  Playbill Broadway YearBook
The Playbill Broadway YearBook

Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide


©Copyright 2008, Elyse Sommer.
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