Monday, July 5, 2010

In The Heights – Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegria Hudes

By Joe Straw

I left my job at the Pantages about thirty years ago. Rex Harrison, performing in My Fair Lady, stopped by for a brief chat to say wish me well.   I said my goodbyes, locked up, and walked out of the stage door up the long ramp and into the cold unpredictable Hollywood night. Change was coming, I felt it, and it was worrisome. Days later, on the east coast, John Lennon was gunned down entering his home in New York City. 

Coming back to the Pantages on Wednesday night was a homecoming of sorts. The Pantages greets like an old friend, reliable and always alluring on opening night, filled with celebrities, and not having lost its luster for one second. Strolling along the red carpet in the lobby makes one feel majestic and still, it feels like home.

One of the most magical things about Pantages Theatre is the rising of the curtain.  There is this curiosity factor of the enchantment behind the scarlet drape when, in a moment, all things become apparent.  In The Heights did not have that moment, as the entire set was visible when we entered the theatre. 

Nevertheless, the musical, In The Heights – Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegria Hudes is a magnificent, colorful, Latino extravaganza set in Washington Heights.

Anna Louizos, Set Designer, has crafted a grand three-story set, which stretches from one end of the stage to the next. The see through walls catch a glimpse of daily life of the residents in their arduous surroundings. And in the background, looking west looms the George Washington Bridge.

The early morning calm in Washington Heights is interrupted by Graffiti Pete (Jose-Luis Lopez), dancing in the darkness with paint cans in hand.  It is an inchoate crime and a dance structured by an endless flow of paint sprayed about this living canvas. 

But, Graffiti Pete’s art is interrupted by Usnavi (Lin-Manuel Miranda) welding (with what appears to be) a swinging boleadoras.  He chases Graffiti Pete away from his bodega and into the sunrise. It is curious that in the night Graffiti Pete is treated with suspicion, in the day he is treated like family.

Usnavi is a man goaded into spontaneous action not only to protect the bodega but the people around him. Wanting in song to have men “pull up their pants”. One can see that he has a slightly conservative approach to life.

But the mournful eyed Usnavi is hesitant or maybe mixed about his approach to love.  In song, his heart is poured out to the masses, never giving the slightest hesitation about how he feels. Spoken in hip-hop rap his love of life wears down the lonely heart. It is heartbreaking, it is exciting, and it is unlike any musical you have ever seen.

Working in the bodega with Usnavi is his cousin Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett) in a learning-a-vocation-as-you-go employee and hoping not to get electrocuted fixing the store’s refrigeration. 

Piragua Guy (David Baida) sings us into the morning with a melodious wakeup call that would humiliate the morning songbirds. And this is how life awakens in Washington Heights.  Little by little (like immigrants) they come to live and work and to be as happy as they can be.

But immediately there is a sense that something is wrong.  Although they are brought together by economic necessities and the closeness of being with like-minded people, there is something that holds each character back from fulfilling their ultimate dream. Challenged and/or imprisoned by their thoughts and surroundings most of these hard working immigrants will never make it out of Washington Heights.

Home to these people is the Dominican Republic.  But in their way, they all want something better in life here, home, families, and good schools for their children. And it is here in Washington Heights, a place they call home, that they will find the most heartache.

Everyone, it seems, starts his or her day off at the bodega.

Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora) has her ritual every morning, to buy a lottery ticket and this plays a significant role in the book of the musical.  She is respected and loved as a grandmother in the neighborhood.

Carla (Genny Lis Padilla), Daniela (Isabel Santiago), and Vanessa (Sabrina Sloan), all beauticians stop at the bodega on their way the beauty parlor.   It is only Vanessa that gets a free cup of coffee unaware of Usnavi’s attention, devotion and wistful dreams. Vanessa is preoccupied with moving to another neighborhood and she also has problems with her mother who has an addiction to drugs. 

Across the street Kevin (Danny Bolero) and Camila (Natalie Toro) own Rosario’s Car and Limousine service.  Nina (Arielle Jacobs) is their only daughter and through the collaborative effort of all they have sent Nina to Stanford University in California. She is the pride of her parents and of Washington Heights.

Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.) who works for the limo service is an up and coming businessman who would like to own his own limo business when a slightly unpredictable thing happens, he falls in love with Nina.

Nina’s father does not hold Benny, an African American, in high regard.  He is told many times that he is not suitable for his daughter. 

It is here that Nina tells her parents that she dropped out of school months ago because of her grades and for financial reasons and the ground beneath them has fallen, their dreams have been shattered.

There are a number of songs that are just magnificent; Jacob’s Breathe was (forgive the pun) breathtaking.  Douglas, Jr. had a number of songs that were marvelous.  It is here that I remember the powerful voices that have filled the Pantages and Jacob and Douglas, Jr. count as two of the best. 

Santoro as Abuela has a wonderful number Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith) playing a lot older than she actually is but nevertheless an exciting performer with a wonderful range.

“No Me Diga” (Don’t tell me.) is a nice gossipy song sung by the lovely over accessorized beauticians Padilla, Santiago, and Sloan with Jacobs in the hot seat.  To say they were fantastic would be to trivialize their performance.  Each performance was remarkable.

Bolero and Toro, as the Mom and Dad respectively, had a lot of very nice moments, wonderful voices and engaging from beginning to end. Bolero had a lot of anger and not so much heartache when he finds his daughter is taking a permanent leave of absence. It’s a small quibble. 

Directed by Thomas Kail and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler these two worked hand in hand to give us an inspiring show of life, love and home.  What an amazing job!

So powerful and inspiring is Miranda’s work it certainly will lead others to follow.  There is more here for the ever increasing Latino market to grasp and run with.  Ultimately, In The Heights is a welcomed change to the Hollywood fabric.  But, it’s only here for four weeks.

Run while you can to the Pantages.

Through July 25th, 2010

Tuesday - Friday at 8:00pm
Saturday at 2pm & 8pm
Sunday at 1pm & 6:30pm

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