In the Heights
Tue Mar 18 2008
Photograph: Joan Marcus
The musical In the Heights has plenty of good old-fashioned Broadway heart, and its heart has a thrilling new beat: the invigorating pulse of modern Latin rhythms, mixed with the percussive dynamism of hip-hop. Lin-Manuel Miranda's joyous score gives classic musical-theater themes (love, self-definition, overcoming adversity) a contemporary urban twist; when the charismatic composer himself—playing Usnavi, the garrulous proprietor of a corner bodega in Washington Heights—lets his own witty rhymes flow, he pulls Broadway into the present tense. With its verbal extravagance, narrative focus and unapologetic emphasis on wordplay, rap is a natural match with the Broadway musical, and never before have the two been wed so happily.
Directed by Thomas Kail and quickened by Andy Blankenbuehler's terrific choreography, In the Heights crackles in its group dance numbers. Among other assets, it boasts a pair of vocally pyrotechnic leading ladies (Karen Olivo and Mandy Gonzalez), as well as appealing comic turns by Andra Burns (as a sassy salon owner) and Robin de Jess (as Usnavi's eager young cousin). If Quiara Alegra Hudes's book were up to the standard of the score, we might have a classic on our hands; unfortunately, the musical's older characters are limned in unadulterated clich, and the contrived second act slows the show's circulation to drips. But when In the Heights is at its best, the talented ensemble forges a genuine sense of community, and turns Broadway into a block party to remember.—Adam Feldman