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Hip-Hop "In the Heights"
Lin-Manuel Miranda (center). Photo by Joan Marcus
"In the Heights"
Directed by Thomas Kail
450 West 37th St. between 9th and 10th avenues
Opened Feb. 8, 2007
Tues. thru Sat 8 p.m., Sun 7 p.m., matinees Sat & Sun. 2 p.m.
$36.25-$76.25 (212) 307-4100
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Feb. 4, 2006
Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights" is a musical that's been a long time coming. Set in Washington Heights, it celebrates in hip-hop and Latin music the ethnic diversity of a neighborhood that has seen radical changes in the past few decades. If it succeeds it will no doubt set off a chain reaction of imitators and wannabes. If it fails it may be a long time before producers again wade into such treacherous waters.
"In the Heights" features the music and lyrics of Miranda, a co-founding member of hip-hop comedy group Freestyle Love Supreme; and a book by Latina playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes (her father is Jewish, her mother Puerto Rican). It is directed by Thomas Kail, who is a co-creator and director of Freestyle Love Supreme. This certainly puts him on the same page with Miranda, which may have helped keep "In the Heights" in focus, but it also gives the show the insular quality one finds when old pals collaborate.
"In the Heights" has a genuine flavor one doesn't always find at commercial theaters. But underneath the hip-hop lyrics and dancing, "In the Heights" has a structure familiar to any connoisseur of musical theater.
There are two romances in the show. The primary one is between Nina ((Mandy Gonzalez), a serious Stanford student facing an early life crisis; and Benny (Christopher Jackson) a serious young man who works for Nina's parents in their taxi and limousine service. The secondary, more comedic love story involves Usnavi (Miranda), who runs the local bodega and Daniela (the excellent Andrea Burns), who works in the beauty salon next door. Think "Guys and Dolls" or "Oklahoma!"
Both couples face obstacles. Nina and Benny have to deal with the disapproval of Nina's father, Kevin (John Herrera), who doesn't think Benny is good enough for his daughter. And Usnavi has to convince the sassy and slippery Daniela that he is indeed the man for her.
Additional humor is provided by Robin de Jesus, who plays Sonny, Usnavi's wisecracking and wise helper at the Bodega.
Hudes might have been able to deepen the play had she not been constrained by the need to keep rapping in dialogue and lyrics. A little less music with more thoughtful lyrics might have gone a long way.
The hip-hop music in "In the Heights" is a cut above most of what one hears on the radio, but it, too, confuses rhyme with poetry and rhythm with melody. Nevertheless, Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman's capable arrangements and orchestration gives the songs a polish that will make them enjoyable even to an un-hip over forty theatergoer.
"In the Heights" does not attempt to make any profound statements about the lives of people struggling in Washington Heights. It talks about coming to America, seeking a better (read more prosperous) life and learning English. It doesn't talk about inequality, exploitation or any of the other ills that plague capitalist America. It's a feel-good musical that never insults or questions. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that.
Despite the hip-hop element and the frequent use of Spanish words, "In the Heights" is not much different than other musicals about New York Neighborhoods. The two shows that come to mind are "Rent" and "Avenue Q" without the puppets. Its buoyancy and goodwill make it extremely entertaining. But it's hardly groundbreaking. As a result, "In the Heights" is definitely a go-see, but not exactly a must-see.
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