IN THE HEIGHTSMusic by Lin-Manuel Miranda; Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegr?a Hudes
AT&T Performing Arts Center
Recreated by Resident Director/Choreographer-Michael Balderrama
Scenic Design by Anna Louizos
Costume Design by Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design by Howell Binkley
Sound Design by Acme Sound Partners
Reviewed Performance: 3/13/2012
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
By Latino I mean Spanish, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Argentinean.
So what musical is all Latin? None actually. Sure, West Side Story has Puerto Ricans as a major part of the story but they are not onstage by themselves. Man of La Mancha has some characters that are Latin. But 99.9% of the time these roles are portrayed by Caucasians.
Look at the last Broadway revival of this musical about Don Quixote. Brian Stokes Mitchell and Ernie Sabella played the leads. Rent has a couple of characters that are Latin (Mimi and Angel).
Another musical is Kiss of the Spiderwoman. But the male roles tend to be played by Caucasian actors. I mean for heaven sakes, Brent Carver is Canadian and originated the role of Molina. Thank god they had the sense to cast Broadway legend Chita Rivera, a native Puerto Rican, as Aurora.
There are two examples where we get to see a musical composed and written about Latinos
One is of course Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita. I've seen so many productions of this musical (over 25 by now), and only once have I seen the two leads played by Latin actors. That was the 1998 national tour starring Natalie Toro as Evita and Raul Esparza as Che.
The other is The Capeman, a musical written by Paul Simon in 1998. This musical is about Puerto Rican gang member Salvador Agron who murdered two teenagers in a Hell's Kitchen park in 1959. Agron mistakenly confused both teenagers as members of a gang called the Norsemen who were supposed to show up for a gang fight.
This Spanish/Latin musical contained several Broadway debuts of soon-to-be major stars of film/stage/TV: Marc Anthony, Renoly Santiago, Ruben Blades, Ednita Nazario, and Sara Ramirez. The musical was met with venom-filled reviews, causing the $11 million dollar musical to close after just 68 performances.
It is quite disturbing and a tad vulgar that Broadway composers and book writers can only use Latinos as gang members, drag queens, drug users, or political hungry wolves that will claw anyone or anything to get to the top. But to add salt to the wound - the majority of these roles don't even go to Latin actors; instead they go to Caucasian actors. That is one jarring slap in the face to any actor of color. The few morsel Latino characters written in for a musical and Latinos don't even get the chance to portray them.
But then in 2008 a Broadway musical finally came to the Great White Way (no pun intended) that was not only performed by an all Latin cast but composed and created by Latinos! That musical would be In The Heights, which just opened its national tour run at the Winspear Opera House.
This musical is the brain child of Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the music and lyrics. Local audiences have now had three projects with Miranda's name attached to them come through and perform on Dallas stages. There was last fall's national tour of West Side Story at Dallas Summer Musicals. Stephen Sondheim called Miranda and asked him to transpose many of the lyrics for the Latin cast into Spanish to give the musical authenticity. Then just last month DSM brought the cheerleader musical, Bring It On, for which Miranda wrote the music & lyrics.
The book for In the Heights is by Quiara Alegria Hudes. The musical takes the audience into the lives of a New York City Dominican-American neighborhood in Washington Heights.
Miranda first tackled the material in an early draft in 1999 during his sophomore year at Wesleyan University. Miranda added freestyle rap and salsa flavors into his musical score. It had its first run in 2005 in Connecticut. After much rewriting, it debuted Off-Broadway in 2007. The final version had its Broadway debut in March 2008. It would go on to rack up 29 previews and 1,185 regular performances, making it the 79th longest running show in Broadway history. The show was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards, winning four: Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography (Andy Blankenbuehler), and Best Orchestrations (Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman). It was also a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
There has been talk of a motion picture version through Universal Pictures. Kenny Ortega was set to direct the film but sadly the project was canceled. There is still talk of it making it to the silver screen.
The immediate rush of euphoria comes from Miranda's score & lyrics. Talk about a musical containing a score that is unique, thrilling, and exhilarating. It is a dazzling cornucopia of hip hop, salsa, pop, soul, reggae, cha-cha, mambo, merengue, rap, Cuban, even a dash of Tejano music genres that are interwoven into the score. My mother loved her Latin music. So listening to the score during the production, my mind was flooded with memories of my childhood and mother. The percussion within the score is so hypnotic and sizzling, it takes great resistance not to get up and start shaking your money maker right in the middle of the Winspear!
It is a testament to Miranda's musical gift that this score contains not one "filler" song - meaning a song thrown in for no reason, just because it needed a song there. Each number is rich in character development, subtext, and moves the story beautifully. Every song possesses finesse composition. I just love every single song, not a weak one in the score. Some personal favorites include "In The Heights", "Breathe", "No Me Diga", "96,000", "Paciencia y Fe", "Carnaval del Barrio", "Alabanza", "The Club/Fireworks", and the finale.
The lyrics are marvelous from the first down beat to the final note. Miranda again shows his gift to truly flesh out his characters and pull the audience deep into the conscious, heart and mind of each character with his lyrics. The rap/hip hop is fast and furious but you can understand each word. His rhyming and free flow within the rap would make Eminem green with envy. Miranda's lyrics balance both the humor and the dramatic overtones. The biggest laughs of the night come from the lyrics. But then a few minutes later the tears well up in your eyes-again because of the lyrics. That's some damn good writing if you ask me.
His lyrics paint exquisite mental pictures of what you see inside the characters. They have deep purpose and meaning without sounding false or robotic. Many recent musicals have lyrics that sound as if the composer and book writer are in a small boxed room with a piano, trying to figure out what rhymes with "door" or "love"- but not giving it substance as to why they chose that word. Miranda clearly avoids that with his pristine, emotional lyrics.
I must commend Miranda greatly for using so much Spanish within his lyrics, as well as for Quiara Alegeria Hudres' fascinating book. This firmly grounds the subtext and emotional core of the piece. It is like a gush of fresh new air bursting through the creaking doors of old, paint by number musicals that continue to be created. Even if you are not Latino, the emotion of the piece ebbs out superbly. But being Latino, it just strikes so close to my heart and my own childhood. That is so rare in today's musical theater world.
Anna Louizos' scenic design looks so authentic you feel as though you have been transported right to the heart of Washington Heights, New York. The stores are squished together with their dirty, dusty, thread bare awnings. The detail to the props within the stores just adds so much realism to each shop and bodega. The tall apartment buildings towering over the set give that sense of claustrophobia you sometimes get when you walk down a New York street.
Howell Binkley's lighting design is a scrumptious feast for the eyes. There must have been hundreds of light cues throughout the piece. Each song has constant shifts of light focus and color. With ballads he has soft hues, but for the scorching salsa/mambo, hip hop, and other up-tempo numbers, Binkley designed a kaleidoscope of rich colors and swirling gobos that raises the excitement of the score to a whole new level. I kept noticing how so many of the scenes and numbers had such striking use of color and movement, such as "Fireworks/The Club" number and the dramatic scenes in the second act. Just overall outstanding lighting created here by Binkley.
Michael Balderrama's recreation of both the original direction by Thomas Kail and choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler is pure perfection. The staging and blocking has not a single hint of weakness. The pace flows just at the right level. The choreography is FREAKIN AWESOME! Yes, I meant to put that all in caps because it deserves it. The amalgamation of hip hop, break dancing, salsa, mambo and other Latin dance flavors will leave you wanting more. With the great percussion floating out of the orchestra pit, the choreography is full gear high energy. Even the slower numbers have soothing, lush, romantic choreography that matches the music measure for measure.
I honestly cannot remember a musical that had the majority of the cast portrayed by Latinos. But what makes me even more surprised is how not one of them are directed or boxed in those stereotypes Latinos, and other races, are forced into when it comes to theater. Some do have accents but they are not in that over the top shtick used so much by comics, and in films, television and even the stage.
The ensemble is top notch fantastic right off the bat. They may have no dialogue, but their commitment to be in the moment is always shown in their acting, dancing, and singing. There are several numbers in which they have no music, so the choreography has to equal the emotion the soloists are presenting. They never try to steal focus but instead they enhance the scene and emotion.
This splendid ensemble consists of Carleigh Bettiol, Chloe Campbell, Gabriel Gonzalez, Sasha Hollinger, Lovar Davis Kidd, Nathaly Lopez, Jeffrey Nunez, Kyle Taylor Parker, and Dominic Carlos Pierson. Also within the ensemble is a sweet, yet funny performance by Gabriel Gonzalez as Piragua Guy.
A special mention goes to Roddy Kennedy as Graffiti Pete. This is a minor character that calls his art spray painting on the metal walls and buildings. He has no singing solos. But he does have some eye popping, amazing dance solos. Kennedy is on fire when it comes to his execution of the hip hop dance moves. His body bends, twists and contorts like a long string of delicious taffy. Kennedy's dancing is a scene stealing showstopper. He curves, entwines, swirls, and positions his body to gel with the music like a polished showman.
There are many impressive, exceptional performances within the large cast.
Benjamin Perez as Kevin and Celina Clarich Polanco as Camila are the owners of Rosario's Limousine service and parents of a first generation daughter, off to college. I must admit I got choked up several times during the tough, emotional battles these parents have with their child. It hit a tad too close to home for this critic. Perez & Polanco have great chemistry and excellently play off each other. Perez has one of the best of ballads within the score titled "Inutil" while Polanco delivers her solo in the second act, "Enough", with much heartfelt compassion.
Tauren Hagens (Daniela), Katherine Brady (Carla), and Jeffrey Nunez (Sonny) provide the majority of the laughs with this production. All three have extraordinary comedic timing, pace and delivery. They know exactly where to add that "button" in comedy to achieve louder laughter. That is a gift that cannot be taught. Each one of them has several scenes that had the audience rolling in laughter.
Ms. Hagens has one hell of a set of power lungs for her voice. The girl can sing! Her ability to sustain long, high soprano notes were met with loud cheers from Tuesday's audience. Her phrasing, vocal tone and singing technique at times reminded me of the late great Celia Cruz.
The young couple in love is portrayed by Virginia Cavaliere (Nina) and Kyle Carter (Benny). Nina has just returned back to Washington Heights after her first semester at Stanford University, while Benny has been working for Nina's father's company since he was a teenager.
Ms. Cavaliere is much stronger both in her acting and singing than Mr. Carter. Her crystal clear soprano voice has an ethereal quality to it. She crescendos from her lower register into the higher soprano notes with effortless ease and not a hint of break or crack. She belts with full gusto but then pulls back for those peaceful and lush soft notes. Each of her solos is like a delectable box of chocolates, each one a delicious treat of ear candy. Her chemistry with her parents and various friends never comes off false or forced. The scenes with her parents are especially powerful. She is a glittery gem in this talented cast.
Kyle Carter, while doing a decent, entertaining performance as Benny, pushes too hard emotionally. He starts off with some snappy comedic scenes but when it comes to the dramatic overtones and intensity, he comes off a tad over the top and not believable. He needs the subtext to carry him emotionally. Instead he seems stuck in a cardboard cut-out of the brooding, misunderstood dude that we have seen in too many other musicals. Vocally he is fine but there are times his "S's" sounded distorted and odd and he struggles with the upper range in his voice.
I'm surprised the Winspear is still standing after the performance by Presilah Nunez as Vanessa. There are beautiful women but then there are those gorgeous, jaw dropping beauties that leave men weak in their knees, and melt down to kiss her Manolo shoes. Nunez is a Latina Aphrodite that would even make a gay man second-guess himself.
That's how beautiful this girl is. But then she sings and you become a puddle in your seat. Hers is a marvelous soprano voice that almost hypnotizes you. There's a Greek legend that says mermaid sirens would sing beautiful haunting ballads, hypnotizing sailors and pirates on their ships, causing them to crash their boats onto the rocks, only to drown. Ms. Nunez has that same vocal power! She had that night's audience in the palm of her hands. Every solo she sings has you transfixed on her resplendent voice. Her acting craft is fresh and honest and she never once loses the moment. This role could have easily gone another way, as a sassy Latina with attitude. Been there, done that. But Nunez steers completely away from that. She instead delivers one of the stand out, scene stealing performances of the evening.
Another scene stealing actress is Christina Aranda as Abuela Claudia. Abuela in Spanish means grandmother but in our culture it is also a term of great endearment, love, and respect for our older female relatives. I will confess I did try to conceal my tears several times during Ms. Aranda's performance. Her loving, warm, and captivating portrayal reminded me of my own Abuela who passed when I was just in high school. Ms. Aranda's performance is clearly one of the audience's favorites. Let's just say the second act drew a very loud response from the audience, that's how much they loved this character, thanks to Aranda's phenomenal performance. It floored me to see that her headshot in the playbill shows a raven haired, young beauty playing this role as the character is at least over 60 and can barely walk. That's a testament to Aranda's acting craft. She transforms her voice, body and movement to fully flesh out this elderly woman who is loved by all. Aranda, like the others, has a superior singing voice. She has one of the show-stopping numbers of the night with "Paciencia y Fe". Ms. Aranda is remarkable in this tour of In the Heights.
In the role originated by Miranda on Broadway is Robert Ramirez as "Usnavi". He owns a bodega that was passed on to him by his parents. He wants to leave Washington Heights and find a new world beyond. How he was named is very, very funny - but I'll let you discover that on your own. As for his dancing, his cousin Sonny says, "You dance like a drunk Chita Rivera". I howled loudly on that great zinger. Ramirez carries the show with remarkable ease and charm. His stage presence fills up the entire Winspear, with miles to go beyond. He has a sweet, warm, kind hearted aura that greatly aids why everyone is his friend.
Ramirez's chemistry with every single principal and ensemble member never wanes nor has an air of falseness. I especially enjoy his scene work with Aranda and Nunez. Those are some of my favorite scenes from the entire show. Ramirez is like a Latin Puck from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. He is the narrator of the musical who takes the audience into his neighborhood and tells who is who. Ramirez has this twinkle in his eye that is magical, with a slight mischievous undertone in his characterization much as Puck. Ramirez handles the hip hop/rap melodies like he was born with that rare gift to rap. The diction is immaculate. You can understand every word even when he runs through a series of rap lyrics like a Tommy gun shooting off. He gives the lyrics solid subtext and purpose. You can honestly feel what Usnavi has in his thoughts and mind due to Ramirez's transcendent, superlative performance. His work in this musical shows why he is the star of In The Heights.
You do not have to be Latino to enjoy this musical. The storyline and character's situations can easily apply to any race or culture. Trust me, you will see yourself in many of the characters and what they are going through.
But as a Latino, it strikes a very deep personal tone within myself, both as part of my culture and as actor. I've been in those exact same situations that several of the characters go through. But to hear and see it on stage in my own native language makes my heart almost explode out of my chest cavity, I feel so connected to the piece as a Latino. As I stated at the beginning of this review, I hardly see any musicals created about my own culture, let alone played by real flesh and blood Latinos. The girl sitting next to me was a Latino as well. During the second act we both had tears in our eyes, and as I turned to look at her, we both knew what we were thinking. We just smiled at each other with tears in our eyes, acknowledging each other in the darkness of the theater. Because we both knew we were finally seeing something that so connected us to the piece. To see our own people in those roles, well you have to be in our shoes to understand how powerful a moment that is for us.
THAT is what musical theater should always do - move you, connect you emotionally to the story and music. Regardless of race or background, In The Heights speaks to all of us. You will GREATLY regret not seeing this national tour of In The Heights. Do NOT miss this one.
Earlier I stated that Evita originally had its leads portrayed by Caucasian actors. Just last night began previews for the Broadway revival of this Andrew Lloyd Webber masterpiece of that powerful Argentinean woman. In the leading roles of Evita are Elena Roger and as Che, Ricky Martin. Roger originated the role in London where she received out of this world, rapturous, critical praise for her performance. Roger was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Ricky Martin was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Hmmmm?..maybe times are a changing???..finally.
AT&T Performing Arts
Winspear Opera House
Through March 25th
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