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BWW Reviews: IN THE HEIGHTS at Toby's - Energetic But Inaudible

By: May. 12, 2013
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In The Heights is not standard Maryland dinner theater fare, concerning, as it does, the residents of a largely Dominican and Puerto Rican barrio at the northern end (and highest part) of Manhattan. The lyrics are often in Spanish, often delivered in rap monologue, and largely assume a kind of cultural literacy not common among Maryland dinner theater patrons: knowing, for instance, what it means for someone to say she comes from La Vibora or from Vega Alta (things I had to look up after the fact) or what kind of comestible a mamey might be (ditto), or what it means to yell "Wepa!" (ditto again). This is probably a good thing; all of us should constantly be looking to broaden our horizons, especially in our theatergoing. At the same time, as much help as possible should be extended to make the proceedings as comprehensible as possible for us Anglo newbies. And sadly, barring a half-page insert of explanation in the program, that kind of help was in scant evidence in Toby's new production.

In fact, it felt as if Toby's was going the other way. Largely this was a result of the sound design. Imagine, for instance, a show in which the entire 7-minute opening number is devoted to crucial exposition about most of the members of a large cast, delivered in Latin-inflected rap patter, rap patter which, like most rap, wanders thematically as the speaker gets seduced (or, if you prefer, inspired) by easy rhymes and/or word associations, so context isn't very helpful, all in a theater in the round so you can't always see and hence be prompted by the speaker's lips - and then, just because of the sound design, you cannot make out more than every third word. The mikes were soft and the orchestra wasn't. I can't tell you how many consonants were shredded en route to the ears by the clatter of the bongos. And when it wasn't the sound design, it was the accents, which were far thicker and far less penetrable than they were on Broadway (compare almost any singer on the original cast album if you doubt me).

I don't want to make it sound as if this production of the show were all challenge and no reward. The singing and dancing, which are the biggest attraction of In The Heights, were superb, at the level one has come to expect of Toby's. All hail David Gregory as Usnavi, the young bodega-owner who is the center of the action, sung in the original by the composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda; Gregory deserves the Danny Kaye/Martyn Green award for sheer aplomb with patter. All hail Nadia Harika as Vanessa, Usnavi's love interest; Alyssa V. Gomez as Nina, the high school academic star returning home bruised by the competition in college; Marquise White as Benny, a rapping taxi-dispatcher and Nina's love interest; David Bosley-Reynolds as Kevin, Nina's worried dad and Benny's employer; Tina Marie DeSimone as his wife Camila, tough-loving mom, who sets father and daughter straight in ENOUGH, and especially Santina Maiolatesi who brings an electrifying voice to the role of Daniela, a beauty shop owner. All hail also the amazing Rachel Kemp, the principal dancer (memorable in a nightclub sene).

In The Heights can be appreciated that way, as, in effect, a revue of the kind of music and dance one associates with a modern American barrio. But it lacks one component of a classic revue, which is well-defined songs. This is much more of an operetta than a musical; almost every word is sung, and so inevitably much of it is recitative. Without the melodic and lyrical repetition of true songs much of the time, without the aural space for exposition via spoken dialogue, it doesn't have quite a musical's ability to tell a story intelligibly, at least to Anglo audiences, nor on the other hand the segmentation into well-defined numbers, which makes a true revue more easily digested, the road-tested way to deliver song and dance when those things are really the point of the enterprise. So one has to consider it an uneasy hybrid, in which a lot of cool stuff will fly by without the average audience-member exactly understanding what or why it is.

Obviously this didn't deter the Tony Voters, who gave it the Best Musical award for 2008. The prestige of this award deservedly makes a reviewer think seriously about the merits of a show. I think, on reflection, that the voters may have had in mind not simply the vitality of the music and singing, but also the show's merits as a document of New York City's flux. Like Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof, the Washington Heights of In The Heights is pictured at a moment when its inhabitants are about to be turned out. Gentrification has struck, and the rents are going up, driving out the three businesses (bodega, taxi dispatch, and beauty shop) around which the action focuses - although we see Usnavi at the end resolving to keep going with the bodega. There is a defiance mingled with acceptance, especially in Daniela's call to hold a CARNAVAL DEL BARRIO before everyone disperses to outer boroughs, downtown or college campus.

This elegiac moment, impelled by the somewhat parochial issue of New York real estate prices, might predictably grab Tony Voters to a greater degree than it does audiences from parts of the country whose realty is less prone to insane inflation.

In sum, even recognizing and allowing for my own limitations as a reviewer for this piece, I still think it's not really Best Musical material, and that great performances cannot make up for weaknesses in the show, even before you factor in the crippling effect of the sound design on this particular rendering of it. I say this with regret, because I have great admiration for the Toby's organization, which mostly delivers amazing musical theater. It was a gutsy thing to place this show before this audience, but not every gamble pays off.

Go for the singing and dancing, because sadly, you won't get much more.

In The Heights, Music & Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, directed by Toby Orenstein & Lawrence B. Munsey, at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, through July 21, 2013. Tickets $35.50 - $54.00, 410-730-8311, Some mild adult language.


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