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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the 37 Arts (Off-Bway), NY

By David Lefkowitz

  Lin-Manuel Miranda and Robin de Jesus

"Write what you know" -- the oldest advice given to budding playwrights. It doesn't mean wallowing in autobiographical minutiae but feeling at home in the skins of your characters and the air of their milieu. Add to that the goal of conveying tremendous empathy for them and making the audience wish we could join their world onstage, and you'll generally come out with a piece that carries us past its defects on waves of warmth, energy and good will. August Wilson did that better than anybody, but he never put those skills to a musical. That's been left to Lin- Manuel Miranda, who, along with librettist Quiara Alegria Hudes, has fashioned In the Heights, a salsified tuner that, at its occasional best, quivers with a joyous and heightened sense of reality.

Those looking for Hispanic stereotypes in In the Heights will find them in abundance, from hoochie-dressed mamacitas to shady characters with grafitti cans to working stiffs who dream of a life outside el barrio. But what musical doesn't trade in broadstroke types? And if Miranda's characters border on caricature, that only makes their dreams quickly clear and their individual vibrancy all the more surprising.

In fact, the major flaw of Hudes' book is inextricable from its grandest strength: she wants to tell two love stories set against the backdrop of harsh but colorful urban life, while also making time to celebrate everyone in the `hood and convey the whole sense of community amidst the bodegas, nail salons, taxi stands and boarded-up shops. So while we follow the impassioned Usnavi (Miranda) and his struggle to manage his newsstand while hoping to impress Vanessa (Karen Olivo), and while we root for Nina (the radiant Mandy Gonzalez) to stay in law school rather than quit because her father (John Herrera) might have to sell his cabstand to pay her tuition, we're also introduced to a half-dozen other people who each get their moment in the blazing summer sun. We begin to fear that In the Heights will become a musical of relentless introductions, even if some of the peripheral tunes (e.g., "Piragua" for the flavored ices man (Eliseo Roman)) prove the most appealing. Few musicals besides A Chorus Line can get away with giving everyone a "want" song.

And yet, damned if both the first and second acts of In the Heights don't brim with excitement precisely because we've had a passing acquaintance with the myriad personas dancing proudly and sexily across the stage. (And because, as directed by Thomas Kail and choreographed by Andy Blakenbuehler, the show is in continual, but focused, motion.) If the songs, on first hearing, sound generic in their mix of light rap, Latin rhythms and ballad pop, they're also infused with authentic-sounding lingo and help convey the vivacity of these earthy dreamers. As lit by Jason Lyons, Anna Louizos' marvelous set can convey fear-inducing blight one moment and a glowing neighborliness the next.

While I don't want to overpraise a musical that didn't always grab me, I certainly prefer the homegrown, relative purity of In the Heights to such hollow, let's-pick-a-commercial-story constructions as Legally Blonde, The Pirate Queen and The Color Purple. Those all cried out for Rodgers and Hammerstein; In the Heights gets by on realism and heart. Barrio Blast


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