Making a triumphant move from its award-winning Off-Broadway run last year,
In the Heights, now ensconced at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, is simply exploding with talent. More important, without question, this extraordinary show will turn out to be the most important and influential musical of the season.
The title of the show, which features a score by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, refers to Washington Heights, the contemporary New York City barrio where plenty of Latin-Americans live, work, love, and dream. We are introduced to a tight-knit community of Heights’ residents going about their business on designer Anna Louizos’ stunning set, consisting of aging tenements and crumbling storefronts with a view of the George Washington Bridge in the background. The bridge not only establishes the musical’s location, it also represents the gateway to the other America that exists beyond Nueva York.
The show’s narrator is Usnavi (Miranda), a bodega owner who’s struggling to get by. His story intersects, as do all the stories in the neighborhood, with the main plotline of a middle-aged, middle-class couple Kevin and Camila (Carlos Gomez and Priscilla Lopez), whose brilliant daughter Nina (Mandy Gonzalez) has just returned from her first year at Stanford. However, she found that scholarships were not enough to bridge the financial gap, and so she has come home to tell her parents she has decided to quit school and return home.
Also figuring into the mix are Abuelo Claduia (Olga Merediz), the woman who raised Usnavi after the death of his parents; Vanessa (Karen Olivo), an apprentice beautician who is desperate to get out of the neighborhood; her spunky boss, Daniela (Andrea Burns); Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Robin De Jesus); and Benny (Christopher Jackson), a shy young man who has worked for Nina’s parents for years yet isn’t deemed by them good enough to be her boyfriend. Early on, you will think you’ve got the plot all figured out, but the show takes a more truthful turn than you might have imagined. And if you saw the show downtown, you will find the book tightened and strengthened.
The Broadway version also boasts four new songs — including a number for Lopez — as well as expanded production numbers. Miranda’s music is exciting and often powerful, but his lyrics are his ace in the hole; not only do they drive the story and establish and develop character, they also represent a magnificent blend of people’s poetry and the dynamic essence of musical theater.
As for the choreography, it almost literally jumps for joy: Andy Blankenbuehler’s work in this show establishes him as the brightest new choreographer on Broadway. It’s hard to know where the brilliant choreography stops and the taut direction by Thomas Kail begins; the show is almost constantly moving, dancing, throbbing with life in this emotionally gripping melting-pot story.
Best of all, the performances given by the talented cast members are breathtaking. Miranda is a knockout; Gonzalez and Jackson are immensely appealing; Olivo sings and dances like a dream; De Jesus plays Sonny with scene-stealing aplomb; and Burns, her part expanded for Broadway, sings with passion. Among the hard-working ensemble, Seth Stewart is a standout as Graffiti Pete. But it’s Merediz who once again stops the show with her first-act song “Pacienca Y Fe” — a truly exhilarating moment.
In the Heights is pure musical theater, with its roots in shows like West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof, but with its energy and inspiration coming from the Latino culture. The combination is nothing short of combustible.