I have a love-hate relationship with Tony Award winning musicals, meaning, I either love them or hate them. Great expectations are and should be placed on the winner of such a prestigious award. In The Heights, winner of the Tony for best new musical 2008 is now showing at the Pantages Theatre. Honestly, I was nervous when I arrived. I feared a repeat of the complete disappointment after watching Spring Awakening (2007 winner) but was hoping for the elation after witnessing the Avenue Q (2004 winner) magic.
ITH is actually Avenue Q-esqe in several ways. It started from similar humble beginnings… an 80 minute one act Wesleyan University project by Lin Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics, original concept) which evolved into an off Broadway show (book by Quiara Alegria Hudes) and finally a hit on Broadway in 2007. It has similar youthful shazaam and exuberance, a diverse neighborhood setting, and well, here’s how it goes…
The show takes place in a Washington Heights barrio in NY, telling the stories of the various neighbors taking it day by day. There’s Usnavi (the incredible Lin-Manuel Miranda… yes the same guy who starred on Broadway and wrote the music, lyrics and was responsible for the original concept), who is a Dominican orphan owner of the local Bodega serving café con leche and lottery tickets to the locals. He has been cared for, and now cares for the Cuban, Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora, from the original Broadway cast) while employing his energetic and charming cousin, Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett, original Broadway cast), guiding him along the path to manhood. He crushes on, giving free daily coffee to the beautiful Vanessa (Sabrina Sloan) who works for the local hair salon, but can’t seem to rise above her circumstances or catch a break. Nina (Arielle Jacobs, with amazing pipes!), the smartest girl in the barrio, with the most potential of success has just arrived back to the neighborhood after her first (and far from successful) year at Stanford. She has to figure out how to break the news to her Puerto Rican parents, Kevin and Camila (Danny Bolero/Natalie Toro)… as well as convince her father to accept his long time employee, Benny (and only non Latino in the barrio, played by Rogelio Douglas Jr.), as her new love. The no nonsense and gossipy Daniela (Isabel Santiago) is moving her hair salon out of the barrio and into the Bronx.
Instead of the sesame street-like, simple “We live on Avenue Q”. this show opens with Manuel (and company) spitting out a hip-hop “In The Heights”, with the ease and style only the creator would have. The music throughout the show goes from hip-hop to merengue to rap and salsa. Much of the story line is conveyed through song… and I found it to be a key part of the genius, and perfectly fitting to further the story. For being so innovative in song… the show follows a very traditional musical theatre recipe, much to my surprise: there’s a young couple in love that go against the parental wishes, there is an older, wiser person giving advice to the young ones, there is a feisty, balls-out woman that will melt your heart. There’s a fight, passion, someone dies, and a completely predictable ending with all loose ends tied up in a nice bow. I thought I was walking into an edgy, urban show (Rent is often mentioned as a comparison). I was ready for controversy, hot timely issues, and possibly edgy vulgarity. The truth is, it’s traditional musical theatre (squeaky clean… maybe two or three curse words the whole eve) with an urban Latino flair. It is new, and old, and familiar and wonderful all at the same time. The wheel doesn’t ALWAYS need to be reinvented; it may just need don a new set of hubcaps. In The Heights does just that.
The one place this musical disappoints is in its use of chorus. I subscribe to the notion that a musical (albeit with great leads) is only as good as its chorus. Traditional musical theatre placed value in the chorus adding “big crowd pleasing chorus numbers” to the recipe. This show had a very talented chorus that just was underutilized. The chorography (Andy Blankenbuehler) was inconsistent throughout the show (I felt like I was in about 3 different musicals) and it left me confused. The set (design by Anna Louizos) confirmed the lack of priority the chorus had, taking the huge Pantages stage and constructing a set leaving only a small triangle of floor space for the neighbors to roam, struggle, contemplate, or fight… but not conducive to whole lot of huge chorus singing and dancing. There were a couple chorus showstoppers, but it wasn’t enough.
The leads were ALL true triple threats… which means they can sing, dance (and the usually neglected) ACT! The direction (Alex Lacamoire) was solid and the show was tight, energetic and ready for an audience on preview night. The diverse audience this show attracts of young and old and from all walks of life is extraordinary and rare. Don’t miss this communal theatrical experience… and don’t miss the outrageous opportunity to see Lin-Manuel Miranda do his thing… he’s only doing it here in Los Angeles.
Tuesday-Sunday Through July 11
Tickets through ticket master, discount tickets are out there!
$25- really expensive