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LATINOMANIA

 

picture - In The HeightsTheater Review

by John Topping

published March 18, 2008

 

In The Heights

now playing on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theater

 

There’s one thing about In The Heights, the new Broadway transfer with a primarily Latino cast – you really, really want to like it.  And, if you do in fact tend to like most of the new Broadway musicals that have opened in the last 20 years, there’s a good chance that you will like this one, too.  It’s what the theatrical world calls a “crowd pleaser.”

 

But as regular Stage and Cinema readers may have surmised, I’m not part of that crowd that is so easily pleased.  Now, to make a political analogy (in deference to a friend who sees everything in terms of the Obama/Clinton presidential bid), if you’re an Obama supporter –and let’s be honest here – you DO want him to win because he’s black.  Now certainly you don’t want him to win ONLY because he’s black – if he were saying all the same things and were white, you’d still want him to win.  But the fact that he’s black does add an urgency to this historic moment; his color is symbolic of change, AND he has the substance to back up the choice.

 

With In The Heights, on the other hand, I want this show to succeed and run a long time because it’s written by a Latino, has a 95% Latino cast, and is aimed at … well, Caucasians, actually.  But, I’m sorry to say, the Latino aspect is the ONLY reason I want it to succeed – to keep the Latino actors working and to keep Latino culture, such as it is, in the spotlight – but not because it has any real substance to it.

 

Let me be clear about one thing:  In The Heights is never bad; but neither does it ever lift off the ground and soar.  Many of the performers are dynamic and have powerful stage presence – and many don’t.  Several of the songs are quite beautiful and, taken out of context, would probably stand much better alone.  Within the show, they seem somewhat mechanically placed – especially when basic exposition is sung – and the dialogue is primarily a set-up for each song more than the songs themselves serve to advance the rather flimsy and not terribly interesting story.

 

In The Heights may be plain at its core, but it is certainly dressed up well.  The set by Anna Louizos – which efficiently and convincingly sets us by the 181 Street stop on the A train with the George Washington Bridge looming in the background – is lit gorgeously by Howell Binkley, taking us through every nuance of sunlight and streetlight that 36 typical hot July hours of New York would bring (the summer audiences who are going to pay $120 to escape both reality and heat, only to find themselves in the midst of a constant reminder of what awaits them after the show, might be somewhat justifiably forlorn).  The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler is adequate and refreshing, with nice spots of break dancing, but never innovative or entrancing.  And it’s overall professionally and competently directed by Thomas Kail.

 

The center of talent – and the reason cast, crew and audience have all gathered together – is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who conceived the show, wrote the music and lyrics, and plays one of the central characters.  He is an extremely likeable presence, and does the lion’s share of the show’s rapping.  But it must be said – and I’m not up on the terms that describe different styles of rap, so bear with me – it’s not the kind of rap wherein you feel assaulted and screamed at;  it’s more rhythmic, sort of half-spoken/half-sung, and very pleasant to listen to.  It is almost amazing to consider that the same person who wrote the show’s hip hop music for himself also wrote the rest of the Broadway-friendly-with-a-Latin-tinge score.  Miranda is a huge talent, to be sure, and In The Heights should permanently seal his standing in the Broadway community.

 

So all of the elements are definitely in place.  But it’s like a Learjet 40XR ready to take off and fly, but it only has the power of a single-engine 1959 Piper Cub.  The weak motor seems to be Pulitzer Prize nominee Quiara Alegria Hudes, continuing the current trend of notable playwrights collecting paychecks for keeping glitzy musicals earthbound with uninspired books (Douglas Carter Beane’s book for Xanadu being a major exception).  We become ever so mildly interested in the characters, but we never truly care (when one can guess the happy endings in the first ten minutes, we need something more to carry us through).  And so it goes with the entire production.  But In The Heights at least knows how to pretend to soar, as if there were a tarp of painted scenery rolling past the passenger window to give the illusion that this big machine is actually going somewhere.  And, for the most part, the audience buys it.

 

johntopping @ stageandcinema.com

with thanks to Rupert Wellington for the airplane analogy

 

 
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