Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Theater Review: In the Heights

Location: Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official In the Heights site

Starring: Corbin Bleu, Mandy Gonzalez, Marcy Harriell, Christopher Jackson, Robin de Jesús, Olga Merediz

My Review: Though In the Heights first arrived on Broadway two years ago (and won the 2008 Tony for Best Musical), it’s taken me this long to finally see it. And the only reason I saw it now was because a friend had an extra free ticket. And while there is some good stuff going on In the Heights, on the whole I’m really glad I didn’t pay to see it.

In the Heights tells the story of a tight-knit community in Washington Heights, a less-than-glamorous neighborhood in upper Manhattan comprised primarily of Latinos. In this part of the city, everyone knows everyone else, and each character has their own story to tell. There’s Usnavi, the resident nice guy who runs the corner bodega and knows how everyone likes their coffee. There’s Nina, the neighborhood success story, who just returned home for the summer after a tough first year at Stanford. There’s Vanessa, who dreams of getting the hell out of Washington Heights, especially now that the salon she works at is being forced to the Bronx thanks to rent hikes. There’s Abuela Claudia, who is everyone’s grandmother in spirit, but not in actual blood. And then there’s a multitude of others who carve out room for themselves in these stories, like Nina’s proud parents who run their own cab company and have high hopes for their daughter; Benny, the non-Latino who happily works for Nina’s parents, until he sets his sights on Nina and is deemed “not good enough”; and Sonny, Usnavi’s wisecracking teenage cousin whose idea of helping out is to be up in everybody’s business. Oh, and then there’s that whole business with Usnavi discovering he sold at $96,000 winning lotto ticket to one of the residents, but which one?

If all of these interconnecting vignettes make you think “soap opera,” you’re right; In the Heights plays out very much like a Spanish soap opera. A high-energy, well-choreographed soap opera, but a soap opera nonetheless. By the middle of the second act, the show is so bogged down with melodramatic clichés and sanctimonious preaching, I felt like I should have been watching it on SoapNet.

Usnavi has loved Vanessa for years, but can’t confess his feelings, and when they go dancing with some friends, she goes out of her way to make him jealous by dancing with other guys. Which I guess could be cute if these characters were 15, rather than supposed adults somewhere in their 20’s. Nina is so smart she’s apparently going to save the world, but she’s flunking out of Stanford because most of her time is spent working two jobs to pay for what her scholarship doesn’t cover. And of course she can only reveal this after the big dramatic speech from her parents about how proud they are of her. Abuela Claudia is so old she remembers what life was like before coming to America, so she’s wise enough to enjoy the simple pleasures in life while the rest of the neighborhood complains about how poor they are and how hot the city is in the summer. It’s all very dramatic in the Heights.

When not being bogged down with overwrought storylines, the audience finds itself being deafened by the musical numbers. I know it makes me sound older than Abuela Claudia herself, but the show is too fucking loud. The orchestra pit is under the stage, but there is no muffling of the sound going on. Every song is accompanied by instruments played with such gusto, it almost sounds like the orchestra members are attacking them, and therefore needlessly overshadowing the lyrics being sung onstage. More often than not, I couldn’t even understand what was being sung due to the loud orchestra, and I was already working overtime to catch everything due to the show’s penchant for lightening-quick rapping (especially from Usnavi).

While In the Heights is kind of a mess overall, there are some good elements to it. Where the show really shines is in its choreography. While I may not have been able to hear what the cast was singing, I could definitely appreciate their moves, as every kind of high-energy dance was incorporated; salsa, mambo, hip-hop, breakdancing, etc. The unnamed chorus members take on the bulk of the dancing responsibilities, and they make every movement look seamless and effortless. Which of course means they’re probably doing the most work of anyone on that stage.

Most of the performances were ably performed. Creator and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda usually stars as Usnavi, but is taking a break for a few months and giving the role to Corbin Bleu, aka “the guy from High School Musical who isn’t Zac Efron.” Having somewhat low expectations due to HSM being one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, I was pleasantly surprised with Bleu’s performance. He was obviously having a great time onstage, and easily kept up with the rapid-fire raps that Miranda spews so effortlessly. Robin de Jesús as teenage Sonny steals every scene he appears in, and is a breath of fresh air as one of the few characters who doesn’t seem to hate every part of his life (the fact that de Jesús convincingly plays a plucky teen while actually being in his mid-20’s is also impressive, though a tactic that would only work on a stage). The women of In the Heights hold their own for the most part, but the final standout performance for me was Christopher Jackson as Benny. The whole “just because I’m not Latino doesn’t mean I’m not good enough for your daughter” stuff got to be a bit much, but Jackson gave a very heartfelt performance of a tough guy on the exterior who actually has dreams and aspirations on the inside.

Bottom Line: The fact that In the Heights won the Tony for Best Musical kind of boggles my mind. Though remembering that it was up against Cry-Baby, Passing Strange, and Xanadu reminds me that 2008 was kind of a weak season (though I have heard that Passing Strange was good). The show has enough things working in its favor to save it from being a total waste of an evening, but unless seeing a clichéd soap opera set to ludicrously loud music is your idea of fun, it’s an easy one to miss.

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