BWW Reviews: Few Spicy Performers Can't Save Mild IN THE HEIGHTS
There's a great Hollywood myth about the film version of The Color Purple. The beloved classic about African-American women was directed by the very male and very white Steven Spielberg, but he allegedly almost quit the project days before shooting was to begin. According to legend, Steven called the film's producer, Quincy Jones, a few days before shooting to voice his doubts about the project. "I don't think I should direct this," Steven said. "I'm a white Jewish guy from California. What do I know about African-American women from the South?" To this, Quincy replied, "Steven, are you an alien? Because you directed E.T., and I think that was pretty good." Spielberg stayed on as director, and the film was a huge success that earned 11 Oscar nominations.
The moral of the story: you don't have to be of a certain ethnic background to make an entertaining film about an ethnic group (And if the Spielberg story isn't enough for you, check out The Gospel at Colonus at the Zach Theatre). However, the opposite is true, too. Just because you're of a certain ethnic background does not mean you're the right person to bring a story about that culture to life.
Months ago, in the midst of a well-publicized controversy regarding the proposed use of guest performers, UT-Austin announced that in addition to re-casting In the Heights to feature more students, the original director would be replaced by a new director, Jerry Ruiz. The selection of Ruiz was made in part, according to an article published by UT-Austin's Daily Texan, because of his Latino heritage.
Considering how In the Heights features a few days in the lives of several Latinos living in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, the intent behind the selection of Ruiz seems clear. Assuming that the intent was to hire a Latino director who could identify with Latino characters and a Latino story, then the mark has been missed by miles. Ruiz's production isn't nearly as interesting as the controversy that preceded it. Despite the popularity of the material and its infectious score which fuses Latin, Broadway, Rap, and R&B styles, this production is flatter than a tortilla.
Most of the problems stem from uninspired direction riddled with scores of mistakes often made by rookies and not experienced directors like Ruiz. For the majority of the show, Ruiz pushes William Anderson's massive and quite realistic New York-inspired set so far downstage that there's little room for the actors to move. The placement of the set also jeopardizes the stunning choreography by Toni Bravo. In one number, it looks as if each performer has the space of about an airplane lavatory in which to dance. Bravo's choreography would be far better served if it had more space. However, the choreography is not without its own problems. Some of Bravo's work is simply too challenging for the cast, something made widely apparent any time (and there are many) in which cast members look at one another to see if they are in step (and often they're not).
All of these problems are small compared to the biggest issue of them all. The entire production lacks focus and purpose. There's not a character or a relationship that rings 100% true (remember what I said about rookie mistakes?). For a show featuring a book that is light on plot and heavy on character, that's a major problem. An audience will tune out and stop caring if none of the characters demand attention and none of the relationships on stage are interesting. And while we're on the topic of "interesting," Ryan Belock's overuse of projections isn't interesting, either. They're just gimmicky and tacky. Do we really need to see bubbles projected on the sides of the stage when a character says "champagne"?
But even though the characters and relationships are undeveloped, that's not to say that the cast is bad. They are doing the best they can with the lackluster direction they've been given. As Usnavi, the show's lead character and our narrator of sorts, Trey Curtis shows that he has the personality to carry a show. Unfortunately, music director Spencer Blank does Curtis a huge disservice by speeding up the tempo of every number to manic levels. Most of Curtis's songs are 90% rap, and the tempo is so unnecessarily fast that Curtis struggles for breath and we struggle to catch the lyrics. Sure, rappers like Ludacris can get away with rhymes that fly faster than a turbo jet, but his fans can always hit replay to catch what they missed. Theatre audiences don't have that luxury. J. Quinton Johnson does a fine job as the charming Benny. With his dance skills and smooth voice, Johnson has the leading man "it" factor. Theresa Medina is also quite strong as Abuela Claudia, and her soaring solo number is a highlight of the show. Max Torrez and Madison Palomo deserve heaps of praise for their wonderfully comedic turns as the wisecracking Sonny and ditzy Carla.
Marianel Marquez and Melinette Pallares don't fare quite as well. Marquez gives the character of Daniela, a sassy hair stylist, an accent so thick and over the top that it verges on cartoony and offensive. In the leading lady role of Nina, Palleres is frankly miscast. She has a pretty singing voice, but she is inaudible during her scene work, even for audience members sitting in the fifth row, and she consistently comes off stiff and awkward. Palleres makes it hard to believe that Nina's the kind of neighborhood hero who would inspire the entire block or have a guy like Benny falling all over her.
While I'm sure the cast, crew, and even the audience wish that In the Heights would be the kind of unmitigated success that would erase the memory of its tumultuous production process, it sadly doesn't come close. While there may be some performers who hit the heights, overall it leaves one feeling low.
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
IN THE HEIGHTS, produced by UT-Austin's Department of Theatre and Dance, plays the B. Iden Payne Theatre now thru April 19th. Performances are Wednesday - Saturday at 8pm and Saturday at 2pm. For tickets and information, please visit www.utexas.edu/finearts/tad