What makes "In the Heights" so unique, however, is that despite the driving pulse of its Latin-American rhythms, blending hip-hop, rap, jazz, pop, salsa and merengue, this buoyant musical also nods reverently to the traditions of the show tune. From its catchy opening number, which tosses in references to Cole Porter and Billy Strayhorn while swiftly introducing a large gallery of key characters and placing them within a vividly drawn community, the musical's plucky marriage of youthful freshness and lovingly old-fashioned craft is hard to resist.
IN THE HEIGHTS Broadway Reviews
Reviews of In the Heights on Broadway. See what all the critics had to say and see all the ratings for In the Heights including the New York Times and More...
But reality is not the issue here; rather, it is fantasy, music, singing and dancing, and some salty dialogue, as well as flawless production values and performance. And, not least, the chance for a more typically ignored minority to display Main Stem theatrical talents in the show, whose concept, book and lyrics are by Lin-Manuel Miranda and whose music is by Quiara Alegria Hudes.
But for all its youthful energy, Heights is ultimately a sentimental journey, and a safe one. True, its outcome is less predictable or hokey than the too-neatly constructed first act would suggest, but Quiara Alegria Hudes' book is no more clever or daring than that of your average Disney screen adaptation. More crucially, Miranda's score is short on the melodic punch that's a vital element of any memorable musical. However well Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman's zesty arrangements and orchestrations serve them, his songs are at best showcases for the rhythmic and harmonic savvy of the cast, and at worst banal vehicles for the empty, American Idol-style showboating increasingly embraced on Broadway.
The musical In the Heights has plenty of good old-fashioned Broadway heart, and its heart has a thrilling new beat: the invigorating pulse of modern Latin rhythms, mixed with the percussive dynamism of hip-hop. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s joyous score gives classic musical-theater themes (love, self-definition, overcoming adversity) a contemporary urban twist; when the charismatic composer himself—playing Usnavi, the garrulous proprietor of a corner bodega in Washington Heights—lets his own witty rhymes flow, he pulls Broadway into the present tense. With its verbal extravagance, narrative focus and unapologetic emphasis on wordplay, rap is a natural match with the Broadway musical, and never before have the two been wed so happily.
First seen Off Broadway last year, “In the Heights” moves uptown with its considerable assets confidently in place: a tuneful score enlivened by the dancing rhythms of salsa and Latin pop, sounds that are an ear-tickling novelty on Broadway; zesty choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler that seems to put invisible wings on the young cast’s neon-colored sneakers; and a stage amply stocked with appealing actors who season their performances with generous doses of sugar and spice. Its fundamental deficiencies are also along for the ride, unfortunately. Conceived by Mr. Miranda, with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, “In the Heights” consists of a series of vignettes that form a vivid but somewhat airbrushed mural of urban life. Directed by Thomas Kail, it is basically a salsa-flavored soap opera, and if there is an equivalent of schmaltz in Spanish, this musical is happily swimming in it.
This is slice-of-life theater, lovingly captured in an eclectic score by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also serves as the show's narrator. Miranda also stars, portraying Usnavi, a sheepishly charming tour guide through this Latino 'hood. If Quiara Alegria Hudes' tale of generational conflict, new love and efforts to snag a piece of the American dream seems scattered, you don't mind its lack of focus because the hardworking actors are so appealing. The genial performers deftly inhabit set designer Anna Louizos' richly detailed tenement and street-scene setting, which has been expanded for the more technically lavish Broadway production.
Lin-Manuel Miranda isn't a one-man band, but he sure comes close: For this irresistible valentine to Latino life in upper Manhattan, the 28-year-old composed the hip-hop-heavy, salsa-rich music, wrote the lively lyrics name-checking everyone from Frodo to Cole Porter, and stars as Usnavi, a proud Dominicano who keeps the neighborhood in lottery tickets and café con leche. The show's flaws — random use of the word schmutz, Quiara Alegría Hudes' book (hair-gel humor?) — are few and easily forgivable; its virtues — Broadway-meets-MTV dance moves, the percussive, insanely infectious score — are abundant.
Much like “West Side Story,” the musical purports to be about young heterosexual lovers, but its most dramatically fulfilling relationships are between men. Single and vaguely sleepy and hyperkinetic all at once, Usnavi can’t seem to connect with women, unlike his best friend, the infinitely more manly Benny (Christopher Jackson). The woman Benny loves is named Nina (Mandy Gonzales); her parents run the gypsy cab company where Benny works as a driver. The play is heavy with plot, but one quickly tunes out the mechanics of it for the charms of watching Usnavi hang with Benny in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the book) have rendered a simple and not at all offensive world, and brought little that is new to the familiar Broadway spectacle of earnest, smiling immigrants singing and dancing for our delectation.
It's certainly no rude "Spring Awakening." It's more like "Guys and Dolls" seen through rose-colored Latino spectacles, with a little gambling (strictly legal), scarce sex (all of it straight) and no drugs. No cigarettes, either, come to think of it. Instead, it's a pretty picture postcard of Washington Heights - one with few lows.
Despite its shortcomings, director Thomas Kail's production, which has changed slightly from last year's Off-Broadway run, has its pleasures. What it lacks in story and believability it makes up for in a vibrant rap- and salsa-flavored score, spirited dances and great-looking design. And the cast is sweeter than dollops of dulce de leche.
I love the idea of In the Heights, and I think Miranda's voice as performer and writer needs to be heard on the NYC stage. But this show is a jumble of ideas, some of them interesting, many others quite mundane or cliched. In the Heights has got a beat; it's got energy. But it's finally so much less than it ought to have been!