IN THE HEIGHTS, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton rap musical, hit the Western Stage last weekend with the energy of an express train and the explosive joy of a sky rocket. The hip-hop score was belted out with power and precision and the choreography often seemed not so much a pattern of dance as a session of acrobatics.
As a child of the Big Band Era, I was daunted at the prospect of understanding all those whirling staccato lyrics. But they were peppered out with such in-your-face clarity that I got the gist and often even the detail of what the exuberant cast were singing about.
Miranda and librettist Quiara Alegría Hudes focus on the Hispanic world of New York’s Washington Heights, much as Spike Lee did with a racially mixed area of Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing. It can’t, surely, be coincidence that, Hudes’ and Lee’s stories both open with everyone sweating out a Big Apple heat wave. But In the Heights, largely ignoring possible racial themes, deals with the more mundane and familiar family and economic struggles of a group of highly motivated immigrants.
A dynamic CSU Monterey Bay graduate named Chris Marcos, who also did the choreography, starts the story off with a bang. As Usnavi, the wistful but wise proprietor of a busy bodega that’s a kind of community center for the local barrio, he offers a compelling opening musical introduction (“In the Heights”) to the hopes and dreams of each of the principal characters. Only in Act 2 do we learn that his unusual first name reflects the fact that the first piece of America seen by his Dominican Republic family was a vessel labeled “U.S. Navy.”
Every character he introduces is perfectly cast and tirelessly energetic. There’s Velvet Piini as Nina, a Local Girl Makes Good who returns home to reveal that she hasn’t. She pauses to steady her nerves (“Breathe”) before facing her ambitious parents, played by Ron Perez and Christina McGovern, with the unwelcome news that she’s been kicked out of Stanford. She finds an ally—and ultimately a lover—in the person of Benny (William Carl Stallings III) the personable African-American dispatch assistant in her parents’ taxi service. Usnavi meanwhile carries a torch for Vanessa (Heather Mae Steffen), a neighborhood beauty who longs to flee the barrio into a Manhattan apartment, far from her job in the hair salon of a busybody named Daniela, played with lots of comic panache by Brianne Lopez. Comforting and counseling anyone who needs a kind word and a helping hand is Jaqui Hope as the wise and kindly Abuela Claudia. Her song “Paciencia y fe” (“Patience and Faith”) offers a welcome pause in the headlong rush of high-powered musical numbers.
There are strong performances by Evandra Aurelia as an amiable dumb blonde named Carla, Michael Blackburn moving a pushcart full of shaved ice and grenadine as Piragua Guy, Nico Abiera, armed with explosive energy and a can of paint spray in the role of Graffiti Pete, and Sonny (Arick Arzadon) a cheeky and athletic errand boy at Usnavi’s bodega.
Just as good are members of an ensemble consisting of Aubree Grider, Isabella Perez, Alejandro Albino, Louie Gonzales, Jordan Gomez and Anthony M. Turpin-Guzman.
It’s a wonderful collection of talented performers, directed by Lorenzo Aragon with an eye to quick action and strong characterization. Don Dally and a nine-piece orchestra give flexible and exciting musical support. The prevailing musical energy and focused acting almost but don’t quite hide the fact that much of the plot is shallow, predictable and generic. In a world where works like Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls and Sweeney Todd are still around to mount strong stories as well as great music, In the Heights offers a script that solves all its major plot problems by having somebody win the lottery.
Never mind. It won a Best Musical Tony and it’s pretty easy to forget the banal story line and roar happily along with the zip and drive of the musical numbers.
It continues on the Hartnell Mainstage through September 16th.