In the Heights

in_the_heightsI had heard so many good things about the new Broadway musical In the Heights that I was hoping for more from this show, set in the largely Latino Washington Heights section of Northern Manhattan around a July 4 holiday. I didn’t dislike it; in fact, I very much admired its spirit and energy. The score, written by the show's star, newcomer Lin-Manuel Miranda, is appealing, with its Latin-flavored, hip-hop, and rap numbers mixing with some more traditional Broadway sounds. There were plenty of virtuoso performances, and the second act had some touching moments. But, overall, largely due to book and story issues and a major lack of character development, I just couldn’t get totally involved in In the Heights.

What story there is revolves around Miranda’s character, Usnavi (the origin of his name is revealed in one of the show's better lines), who owns a corner bodega, and his fellow residents. There are the usual romantic entanglements, along with a winning lottery ticket, and the show touches on the gentrification occurring in the neighborhood. It really is a slice-of-life story in which the neighborhood itself is the main character. If you go in understanding that, you may better enjoy the onstage proceedings. But the show feels disjointed and not very well constructed, the story doesn’t unfold in a strong or compelling manner, and the whole thing just doesn’t seem particularly cohesive. At times it seemed like a revue, or a series of musical skits, with each resident getting his or her big number, but none of it doing much to build drama or advance the story.

And when a story ultimately did start to emerge, it really didn’t revolve around our central character. As endearing as Miranda was as a performer, we never got to know much about Usnavi. His character, like all of them, was likable, but not developed enough for the audience to really invest emotionally in him. As a result, I too often felt distanced from what was happening. I could enjoy the productions and wasn’t bored by any of it, and I was moved as parts of the story finally emerged in Act Two. The ending, however, was abrupt and not particularly satisfying.

All the performances, though, were strong. In addition to Miranda, I particularly liked the radiant Mandy Gonzalez as a returning Stanford student and the moving Olga Merediz, who played Abuela Claudia, Usnavi’s surrogate grandmother. Andrea Burns was also fun to watch whenever given stage time.

In spite of the reservations I have, I do hope In the Heights can succeed. So far, it seems to be doing so – reviews were good and business has been solid. The show will certainly earn some Tony nominations and will have a shot at winning the Best Musical prize. It definitely has some appeal to a non-traditional Broadway audience, and one has to root for the young talent that created the show, saw it achieve success and praise when it opened off Broadway last year, and now finds it on Broadway. The audience seemed to respond quite enthusiastically the night I attended, and the show isn’t without its appeal. But I found myself hoping for a new musical that I could take to with genuine enthusiasm; for me, at least, In the Heights isn’t that show. - James Miller

In The Heights is playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre - 226 West 46th Street - New York, NY 10036.

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Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

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