Friday, November 13, 2009

Ecstatic Heights

“[T]he contributions of immigrants...can be seen in every aspect of our national life. There is no part of America that has not been touched by our immigrant background.” – John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants, 1963

From the Irish in the 1820s to the current wave of new arrivals from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, immigrants have brightened and enriched American culture. We are, indeed, a nation of immigrants. In fact, it you go back far enough, we’re a world of immigrants - and have been since we started moving out of Africa millennia ago.

In the Heights – the dynamic and thoroughly entertaining new musical on view at the Fox through November 22, 2009 is the latest in a long line of Broadway hits that have reflected and celebrated the changing wave of cultures arriving on our shores. Granted, the show – which was born nearly a decade ago at Wesleyan University in Connecticut – features music and dance that are very contemporary, but it has roots that go back through Ragtime, West Side Story, Abie’s Irish Rose, and the comedies of Harrigan and Hart. Its 21st-century flash, in short, is firmly grounded in tradition.

Quiara Alegría Hudes’s book is solidly in the American mainstream with its celebration of family, star-crossed lovers, and conviction that anyone with what the Victorians called “pluck and luck” can make a difference in the world. Set in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, In the Heights revolves, in classic musical theatre fashion, around a pair of love stories.

Usnavi, whose Dominican parents named him after the first boat they saw when they arrived in the USA (it read “U.S. Navy”), runs the local bodega. He dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic with his beloved Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood elder and his virtual grandmother, and of working up the nerve to date Vanessa, who works at the local salon. Meanwhile Benny, the black dispatcher at the cab company owned by Latin immigrants Kevin and Camila, carries a torch for their daughter Nina, whose own dream of a college education has been deferred – if not destroyed – by a failed first year at Stanford.

Also on hand are Sonny, Usnavi’s somewhat feckless younger cousin; salon owner and local gossip Daniela; Sonny’s friend and street artist Graffiti Pete; and Piragua Guy, waging commercial war on the Mister Softee truck with his pushcart of crushed-ice-and-syrup confections.

As the play’s story unfolds over a sweltering July 4th weekend the characters’ lives intertwine in funny and touching ways en route to the inevitable joyous finale celebrating home, heart and, above all, hope. Yes, that finale is based on a lucky break right out of Dickens but that, too, is part of the tradition.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score, on the other hand, is a very cool and non-traditional mix of hip-hop, salsa, merengue and soul as well as more conventional pop and musical theatre sounds. It’s nicely matched by Thomas Kail’s fluid direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, which seamlessly blends African and Latin American moves with classic jazz dance. Like the neighborhood re-created in loving detail by Anna Louizos’s set and Paul Tazewell’s colorful costumes, In the Heights is almost constantly in motion.

All this is brought to life by a mostly young and entirely talented cast of 27 terrific performers - all of whom can sing, act and dance up a storm - headed by Kyle Beltran as Usnavi. He cleanly articulates the character’s rapid-fire rap narrative while convincingly conveying his winsome charm. Rogelio Douglas Jr. is a forceful and sympathetic Benny and Shaun Taylor-Corbett is all stoner charm as Sonny.

Daniel Bolero and Natalie Toro play off each other nicely as the embattled Kevin and Camila. Isabel Santiago is great fun as the opinionated Daniela, while Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer radiates not-quite-innocent sensuality as Usnavi’s unrequited lust object, Vanessa. Arielle Jacobs, whose varied credits include creation of the “eco-website”, is a winning Nina.

Rounding out the principals in fine style are Elise Santora, repeating her Broadway role as Abuela Claudia, and David Baida as Piragua Guy.

In the Heights is a dynamite piece of musical theatre the captures a unique place in space in time while still ringing changes on universal human needs and aspirations. Some of the humor is definitely on the adult side so you might want to leave small children at home, but on the whole it’s as uplifting a celebration of neighborhood and family values as you’re likely to find anywhere.

You might want to bone up on the story in advance, though, by watching some of the video excerpts on the official web site or the related Youtube channel; I found the Fox’s acoustics to be a real barrier to understanding all the lyrics. On the other hand, my “thirty something” goddaughter caught everything, so maybe it’s just my aging ears.

You’ll find In the Heights at the Fox through November 22nd. For ticket information, you may call 314-534-1111 or visit the web site:

If In the Heights is the future of musical theatre, then that future looks like a rainbow. And who doesn’t like rainbows?

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