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In The

In The


The toast of Broadway attempts to show a grittier side of New York City, but fails to deliver.

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.

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.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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Mike Diamond