High-energy and high-impact, Broadway transfer In the Heights has retained all the vigor and exuberance it displayed off-Broadway last season, qualities that shine even brighter on the Great White Way than off. The Latin-rhythmed feel-good festival may still be more than a hundred blocks south of Washington Heights, but it has climbed quite a distance. To make it to the top, however, its book could do with one final revise.
The ensemble's stories, like their lives, are intricately intertwined: The show's narrator hero, Usnavi (played brilliantly by Lin- Manuel Miiranda, the show's creator, who also wrote the music and lyrics) is a hip-hop-spouting Dominican bodega-keeper, who supplies his lively but gentrifying neighborhood with café con leche, condoms, and packing crates. He's helped by his enterprising illegal young cousin, Sonny (Robin de Jesus ), and the elderly woman, Abuela Claudia (the riveting Olga Merediz) who's played grandma to him and half the neighborhood. He's in love with Vanessa (Karen Olivo) the local beauty who works at the salon next door (though it's been priced out and is moving to the Bronx) but longs to move out of the barrio and into the Village. Meantime, his best friend, Benny (triple threat Christopher Jackson), is an African American up-and-comer who works for the local Puerto Rican car service. He's in love with the boss's daughter, Nina (Mandy Gonzalez), the neighborhood success story just come back from her first year at Stanford-where, unbeknownst to her proud parents, things haven't gone so well. As the characters struggle with their various conflicts and the crippling heat of a New York July, they're hit by several lightning-quick strokes of fate, including a blackout, complete with looting, and the news that somebody has bought a winning lottery ticket at Usnavi's bodega.
The interlocking stories are difficult to disentangle but easy to follow, and Miranda's infectious, ingenious riffs, lilting melodies, and smart, playful lyrics keep the action dancing as energetically as the talented cast. But though the spoken lines are also clever and often engaging, the larger structure of Quiara Allegria Hudes's book falters - the jampacked first act builds to a climax, and then another, and then another, almost unbearably. After the escalating drama, the second act feels mired in the doldrums by comparison. But even more problematic than the pacing, the play doesn't quite know whether to err on the side of a grim reality, in which the barrio will be emptied out by hipster rents in the next five years, prejudice will keep Benny and Nina apart, and only rich people win the Lotto, or on the side of a joyous old-school communitarian musical, where the streets are awash with attractive, talented dancers, the beauty salon knows about love affairs before the lovers do, and a heat wave is just an excuse for carnaval.
Off Broadway, the book opted for sprawling and all-encompassing, and then worked hard to tie up the many loose ends. But ironically the simplified Broadway version is in some ways less satisfying, even though some of it is more realistic - it leaves conflicts unresolved and stories unfinished. Despite the flaws, however, the sheer exuberant, hyperbolic charisma of this savvy show and its spectacular cast ensure that this show hits the heights - if not quite the top.