devouring theatre, film, and food
In the Heights, winner of the 2008 Tony for Best Musical, follows three generations in the primarily Puerto Rican neighborhood of Washington Heights as they deal with issues of class, race, and assimilation. It’s also really good.
Penned by musician and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (who played the bodega-owner/narrator in the original Broadway production), In the Heights is a poppy, rappy, collection of songs filled with a carnival energy and carnal emotionality that resonate regardless of race. While some jokes might be missed by EOL spectators (English as Only Language), the struggles of making it and what to make of it are universal
Usnavi, named after a ship his parents saw as they immigrated to the United States, welcomes us to his bodega, where he provides caffeine and empty dreams (lotto tickets) to his neighbors. He’s sandwiched in between two other shops – a salon with stereotypically gabby stylists and a family-run cab company, whose owner and wife eagerly welcome their daughter back from her first year at Stanford. Nina, who represents everything they came to America to achieve, returns to confess she’s lost her scholarship and is on academic leave. The one who got out has dropped out.
While the first half-dozen songs of the show are mostly solo numbers, the clever lyrics, emotional music, and strong performances easily make up for a lack of variety. The touring cast is non-Equity, but their talent is non-arguable. When a group number does appear – “96,000” (not the number of minutes in two months, but the number of dollars in a winning lotto ticket), the audience is captivated and the conflicting desires of the town come to a point. While Grandma remembers the island and her difficulty of assimilating into the United States, Usnavi’s love interest Natalie who will do anything to get out. These generational differences are more than teenage angst, and instead echo the cyclical rhythms of offspring turning away from their parents to create lives of their own.
While the second act takes second place compared to the first, there are several strong numbers. However, they only reveal the slice-of-life quality to the piece. The overall stakes remain low. A pair of casual love stories and family drama make for strong individual stories, but combined they fail to elevate the 2.5-hour show to a place of profound emotional or narrative relevance. Of course, I’d rather a musical attempt to accomplish much and slightly fail than succeed at the simple. The accomplishment of preserving a historical moment in a neighborhood on the cusp of gentrification outweighs any slightly out-of-focus narrative. Also, it’s really damn good.
The lights are up on In the Heights at the Oriental Theatre through January 15. More information at http://www.broadwayinchicago.com.