In The Heights

By Mike Diamond

Originally published on Advocate.com April 13 2008 11:00 PM ET

Washington
Heights is a mainly Latino neighborhood in the upper reaches
of Manhattan, so far up along the island’s West Side
that it seems to exist in another borough altogether.

In the Heights, which takes place one hot and
steamy July 4th, attempts to bring to life the stories of El
Barrio’s residents, their struggles, and their
triumphs. What it mainly succeeds in bringing to life
is a throbbing headache.

IN THE HEIGHTS CAST X395 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Set on a single
street corner, the George Washington Bridge looming
stoically in the background, Heights trots out
an assortment of types: the mom-and-pop business owners
(Carlos Gomez and Priscilla Lopez), the sweet old lady
Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, who has
an excellent singing voice, but every one of her
overwrought line readings made me cringe). The main
figure in the story is bodega owner
Usnavy, portrayed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who conceived
of In the Heights and also wrote the music and
lyrics. Usnavy is likeable, if a bit of a cipher. He seems,
in the midst of all the passions and mild angst
swirling around him, to exist on an entirely different
plane.

Miranda’s
performance is interesting; he injects heavy doses of
hip-hop, much of it quite funny, into his "singing,"
essentially rapping all of his dialogue. It’s
an effective fusion of traditional exposition and
contemporary musical styling; unfortunately, a little of
that goes a long way. By the third or fourth time he assumed
some gangsta rap body language and spat out some
singsong rhymes to move the story along, I was
white-knuckling my armrests. Robin DeJesus (best known from
the film Camp) does a fine job as the
clownish Sonny, Usnavy’s young cousin, employee, and
sidekick. DeJesus brings a light touch to
Sonny’s goofball antics and not-quite-seasoned
swagger.

On the whole, the
performers are overwhelmingly better than the material
they have to work with. As Vanessa, dreaming her way out of
El Barrio, Karen Olivo is sex on sticks, stalking
across the stage like a panther, sultry and petulant.
Olivo’s dancing is superb, vividly expressing her
character's frustrations and white-hot sensuality,
and her voice is strong and textured. As
Daniella, owner of the neighborhood beauty salon,
Andrea Burns steals all her scenes. Her Daniella is
sexy, wise but not jaded, and an incorrigible gossip.
Burns gets all the good lines in the show and imbues
every one of her character’s saucy asides with just
the right combination of vinegar and hidden heart.

There are two
sodden love stories embedded in the story, both of them
completely void of chemistry. Shy Usnavy pines for
neighborhood sexpot Vanessa, while Benny (Christopher
Jackson), who works for Rosario’s Car Service,
hooks up with his boss's daughter, the studious but
conflicted Nina (Mandy Gonzalez). Gonzalez has a pure
and lovely voice, and she shines in "Breathe," one of
act 1’s best numbers. For his part, Jackson is
muy caliente, a sexy slice of Latin cheesecake
and a fine dancer. His character is all bravado and
boast, and reminded me of the many obnoxious types one
tries to avoid on the subway.

The tone of the
musical numbers vacillates wildly, from heavy-handed and
maudlin to Disney World–on–crack
free-for-alls. Some of the more high-energy production
numbers do work: Act 1’s closer, "The
Club/Fireworks" is a dazzling group effort -- the
choreography is kinetic and sometimes breathtaking,
and it is here that the music works to advance the
story as well.

Unfortunately,
the show never reaches those "heights" again. Act 2
opens with -- and wallows in -- one saccharine tune
after another. As the second act lurches toward its
climax we are assaulted by one sophomoric, dirgelike
song after another, all of them wallowing in
self-pity. Does it never occur to these characters to hop on
the Downtown train if they want a better job? The show
is limited by its very setting: Actors swirl toward
and storm away from this street corner endlessly,
yet all this chaos does nothing to open up the scope of the
story. I felt trapped on this corner with them.

While there were
some likeable moments -- pushcart-slushie-selling
Piragua Guy (Eliseo Roman) was a crowd-pleaser, and the
spirited number "Carnaval del Barrio" was fun --
ultimately the show isn't memorable. None of the
melodies are memorable once the curtain goes
down, and the story doesn't ring true. It’s a far too
sanitized portrayal of a neighborhood in decline --
where are the muggings, the rapes, the drug addicts?
It’s a Pollyanna version of life in El
Barrio. In the Heights comes across as West
Side Story
meets Sesame Street. At any moment
I half expected a singing cockroach Muppet to jump out
from behind a fire hydrant.