Photo by Don Kellogg

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

In The Heights

A fresh, new musical chock-full of rhythm, heart, and Latin soul. Lin-Manuel Miranda conceived this musical in 2005 while still in college and worked dogged days and nights to bring his dream to the Broadway stage. Young, fresh talent is exactly what Broadway needs more of.

So what's different about this show? A whole lot and not so much at all is the answer. At it's core - it's a traditional musical in structure and content - Man has a dream, falls in love, struggles to overcome adversity, bittersweet triumph results and he gets the girl. There are two leading couples, one set of parents, one grandmother, a chorus of friends and neighbors, and a whole lot of dancing. So what's, different? It's 100% Latino. It takes place today on a corner in Washington Heights (hence the title). It's about modern immigrant struggles - non-stop and in-your-face. West Side Story may have been the first - but Lin-Manuel Miranda has brought a contemporary twist to the presentation that seems to draw in the adults as well as throngs of young kids.

The recipe for success: A dash of rap and a heaping spoonful of Latin rhythm and dance give this show a constant true-to- life feeling of Washington Heights. Everyone can relate to the little bodega on the corner and the larger than life figures that inhabit the neighborhood near the A-train at 181st Street. Add a pinch of cross-cultural (read, intra-Latino prejudice) family drama and a splash of economic hardship to the picture and you have a potent cocktail the audience consumes with delight.

Part of the success here is the audience's willingness to cheer the underdog, the new guy, a presentation of a new culture on stage - upbeat Latin flair layered into a traditional musical structure. Virtually a total cast of authentic and talented Latinos of all types dominate the stage from grandmother to kids. Of special note - Olga Merediz (Abuela Claudia) and Eliseo Roman (Piragua Guy) - two characters who completely surprise and entertain. The elders on the stage, Priscilla Lopez (Camila) and Carlos Gomez (Kevin) bring the struggle of the "old ways" into the picture. Robin De Jesus (Sonny) brings a sketch of today's youth and a dash of comedy to the story. Christopher Jackson (Benny) and Karyn Rodriguez (Vanessa) draw you into the heat of their youthful attraction while Lin-Manuel Miranda (Usnavi) and Karyn Rodriguez (Vanessa) struggle to find their love for each other.

When this show transferred to Broadway this season - a few eyebrows were raised. It was not a sellout off-Broadway. Was the musical score too homogeneously Latin ? Could it make it in a big, mainstream theater? I, myself, didn't think it would last. But after seeing it, I find myself in the unenviable position of eating crow. In The Heights proves itself as a stunningly contemporary and powerful presentation with a fresh young cast who put a new Latin spin on the age old problems of life.