Reviewed by David Spencer
No one ever mounts a show, let alone a musical, this big off-Broadway—not these days—unless the ultimate goal is to move midtown to a Broadway house. (Or perhaps, if you have some wildly creative financial model, to make such a splash as a novelty that life on tour and internationally is a good bet, kind of as it was for the Yeston-Kopit Phantom.) So the reaction of the press is pretty much everything. And when I saw In the Heights at a press preview at 37 Arts, what struck me most profoundly was that it could have gone either way. And that's because my own opinion could have gone either way. And indeed, many of the reviews seem to have gone both ways.
To make sense out of that, consider that In the Heights is perhaps the first genuine Hispanic musical—certainly the first to be given any kind of mainstream attention and the first to be written by Hispanics in a way that pays respectful homage to traditional musical theatre craft even if it doesn't always play by the principles. This panorama of life in a present-day Washington Heights neighborhood, taking place over a Fourth of July weekend, uses its regard for tradition to "buy permission" for use of authentic Latino and hip-hop stylings—not usually the province of musical theatre, owing to the limited emotional colors that can be expressed to hard backbeats. (I'm not trying to be glib, I mean that sincerely; most pop music of this nature concentrates on a single primary color, which can be viscerally exciting, even cathartic in the right place—but doesn't allow room for character definition or story progression.) Yet composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda is a new wave theatre baby who isn't out to reinvent the wheel, just to provide a different set of spokes, he understands the need to provide the pastel colors by way of contrast; and with a foot in musical theatre language that he clearly loves, and another in the locution of an ethnicity that would be a severe challenge, if not impossible, for an outsider to tackle with authentic insider understanding and affinity, Hudes manage to do what Burt Bacharach (with Promises, Promises) did for pop in the late 60s, what Stephen Schwartz (with Pippin) did for rock in the 70s, and what David Yazbeck (with The Full Monty) did for jazz and fusion on the cusp of the new millennium: he manages to put a genuine (rather than imitated) pop vocabulary through a theatrical filter, to create a sound that seems like it came straight from an iTunes download, but is in fact an extremely canny hybrid.
The energy generated by this is instrumental in keeping the libretto of Quiara Alegria Hudes moving along fleetly, no mean feat, as hers is a gestalt musical about a community, with several interwoven storylines, none really primary (though a slight bit of extra weight is thrown onto the character of Usnavi, our guide through the neighborhood, engagingly played, not incidentally, by the composer-lyricist, Mr. Miranda). Gestalt musicals are a tough sell: musicals tend to want to follow a single main character's quest as the motor, for if there are multiple equal storylines, the natural compression of the form works against them taking much emotional hold, and structure seems to sprawl...unless one can tap into the A Chorus Line vibe, where somehow the individual agendas can coalesce into a unifying single desire. That's when a gestalt musical has a fighting chance...and by dint of its sweetness, and most of its main characters wanting something better for others, for the sense of community, as much as or more than for themselves, In the Heights does.
So we can get behind convenience store owner Usnavi's concern over his nephew Sonny's (Robin de Jesus) well being, even as he tends his crush on Vanessa (Karen Olivio); and the 50ish Camilla and Kevin (Priscilla Lopez and John Herrera) worried about continuing to pay for the college educaton of their daughter Nina (Mandy Gonzalez) even as Nina worries about staying on to help their hired car business and budding romance with dad's black employee Benny (Christopher Jackson). And then there's the neighborhood grandma, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) and the neighborhood spitfire, Daniela (Andrea Burns). All roles are played winningly, sung thrillingly and danced (choreography: Andy Blankenbuehler) with infectious energy and skill. All directed smoothly by Thomas Kail.
None of this makes In the Heights a great musical, or one destined for a long and important berth in the literature. It just doesn't feel like that kind of breakthrough. But something about it vibrates sympathetically with now, with a current audience hunger, even with a specific audience hunger: it reaches out to its own in a way that few theatrical ventures do, which can only widen the general audience and inspire other budding Hispanic artists to consider theatre, and musicals in particular, as an outlet—and consider doing it right.
Is that enough to get it to Broadway? I don't know. But I hope so. Alongside The Color Purple working another ethnic neighborhood in need, it can do nothing but good...