Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In the Heights

‘IN THE HEIGHTS’ reaches the heights the Palace

There may have been a snowstorm raging outside, but inside the Palace Theatre, where the touring production of the Tony Award winning musical, ‘IN THE HEIGHTS,’ was having its opening night, the place was sizzling! The salsa, hip-hop , meringue and soul music, the dancers who were zooming all over the stage, and the well tuned voices of the singers, all blended to make ‘IN THE HEIGHTS’ reach the heights of an involving show.

The musical gives a glimpse of Washington Heights, an uptown New York City area, which has been the home to many immigrant groups. Though now becoming gentrified, it has a predominantly Latino essence.

‘IN THE HEIGHTS,’ with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, is both an artistic and financial success. In an unusual Broadway story, in less than one year, it recouped its $10 million dollar investment.

In the pre-dawn darkness, alarm clock radios ring from scattered windows announcing a record-breaking heat wave today, July 3. The sun rises, revealing a silhouette of the George Washington Bridge above the apartment buildings.
In the shadows, a young man sprays graffiti onto the awning of a bodega, but his artistic reverie is interrupted when Usnavi, the young store owner, enters and chases him away. Usnavi opens the store, which supplies neighbors with their morning coffee and papers. We meet Abuela Claudia, who raised Usnavi, and Sonny, his young cousin who helps with the store. Everyone's stories and dreams pass through this modest store front: his friend Benny wants a promotion, the ladies who work at the salon want some gossip, and Vanessa, Usnavi's love interest, wants an apartment in a different part of town. Usnavi has a dream of his own: to one day return to the island of his roots, the Dominican Republic.

As we watch the story of a neighborhood unfolds. Not unlike the opening number of ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF,’ the traditions of a culture are revealed as the title song curtain opener proceeds. By the time it’s over, the audience is informed and hooked.

Though the story line is trite, often soap opera-like, it matters little. What’s important is the music, the dancing and the singing. Such numbers as “Carnaval del Barrio,” “Enough,” “Breathe,” “The Club/Fireworks” explode on the stage.

Andy Balkenbuehler’s choreography and Thomas Kail’s staging are enveloping. The dancers are such an integral part of the action and the staging is so well developed, that wonderful stage picture after wonderful stage picture evolves.

The cast is universally excellent. All the characterizations are well developed and every voice is solid and on-key, and the dancers are fine, so very fine.
To highlight anyone is unfair to every one else, but a couple of special hurrahs to: Shaun Taylor-Corbett (as the delightful Sonny), Elise Santora (Abuela Claudia, the earth mother), and Kyle Beltran (the appealing Usnavi).

If there is a flaw in the production it’s the over-zealous, over-microphoned orchestra. Sometimes they forget that they are supposed to be playing back-up and drown out the singers/speakers. In a show that contains much hip-hop lyrics, the meanings of which are important to understand the show, the music needed to be underplayed during the speaking segments.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you like dynamic dancing and music, and want to be swept along to a different musical theatre experience, ‘IN THE HEIGHTS’ is a production for you to see. But, be aware the music is very loud.