Monday, March 10, 2008

Broadway In The Heights

Welcome to Upper Manhattan—some might call it the barrio. Broadway has not gotten up around here too often since West Side Story. However, In the Heights, composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda’s affectionate slice-of-life musical set on a Washington Heights street corner, has none of the gang wars of the earlier Bernstein musical, focusing instead on the daily struggles of its characters. Now, after a long, circuitous Off-Broadway route, Heights finally opened on Broadway last night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

For out-of-towners, Washington Heights is a neighborhood in Manhattan, above 155th Street and below Inwood on the Island’s tip. It currently has a largely Hispanic demographic breakdown, so Heights appropriately boasts a very strong salsa and meringue flavored score, joining Passing Strange in an attempt to broaden Broadway’s musical palette.

Miranda plays Usnavi, the shy Dominican everyman bodega owner who knows everyone in the neighborhood and how they take their morning coffee. Many of Miranda’s numbers incorporate a sort of half rapping, half singing delivery that deftly handles a lot of the exposition. He also makes shrewd allusions to Ellington’s “Take the A Train” and Cole Porter.

This show just would not work if its lead did not exude an earnest likeability. Fortunately, Miranda’s Usnavi makes for a strong rooting interest as he deals with his undisciplined cousin Sonny and his unrequited love for the impossibly long-legged Vanessa, played by Karen Olivo (there is a reason she never has to pay for coffee).

The book by Quiara Allegria Hudes is not perfect, but it keeps the audience caring about the characters. Actually, the cleverest lines of Heights, like the explanation of Usnavi’s unlikely name, often come embedded in songs, in a way that makes it difficult to determine if book writer or songwriter deserve the credit.

The matriarch and moral center of the neighborhood is Usnavi’s Cuban “grandmother” Claudia, played touchingly by Olga Merediz, who one way or another figures in some of Heights’ most moving numbers, including “Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith).” It vividly describes her past life in Havana as well as her family’s sudden flight, which though not explained in song, obviously involves a certain bearded dictator.

While there are moving moments in the various subplots, the music is what really stands out in Heights. “96,000” is a rousing show-stopper for the entire cast and “The Club/Fireworks” is a well staged conclusion to the first act. Even Eliseo Roman in a small role as a street vendor competing with Mister Softee gets a big hand for “Piragua.”

Miranda’s Latin music is infectious and the band sounds great throughout. It includes a number of jazz musicians (or at least musicians with jazz experience), including: trombonists Joseph Fieldler and Ryan Keberle, trumpeter Raul Agraz, Kristy Norter on reeds, percussionist Andres Patrick Ferero, and bassist Irio O’Farrill. Together they contribute enormously to the show’s success.

One of the questions hanging over Heights is whether or not this corner is a neighborhood or simply a way-station. It is hard to ignore the fact that the characters never express a sense of American identity. Rather it is their roots in DR or PR that define them. Perhaps Usnavi takes a step towards answering this question in the nicely drawn conclusion. Yet to its credit, Heights values things like family, hard work, education, sacrifice, music, and yes, community.

Ultimately though, the music of Heights defines the show—it is probably the best original score to grace Broadway stages in years. Together with the charisma of its lead, it provides a fresh theater experience, which should give Heights a long, successful run.