Friday, March 19, 2010

Theater review: 'In the Heights' electrifies at Broward Center

Kyle Beltran in In the Heights. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

By Hap Erstein

It is ironic how much electricity courses through every minute of In the Heights, and yet the Tony-winning musical’s story turns on a power outage.

In early 2008, a major new voice of the musical theater, composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, staked his claim on a piece of Broadway with his salsa-flavored show, a slice-of-life in New York’s Washington Heights. Merging Latin rhythms with hip-hop and the traditional sounds of Broadway, he tells a character-driven tale of so many dreams in this ethnic neighborhood in transition.

Like the stage manager of a reinvigorated Our Town, corner convenience store owner Usnavi (originated by Miranda and played at the Broward Center in this vigorous, nimble touring production by Kyle Beltran) introduces us to the denizens of this barrio in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge.

There is Nina (Arielle Jacobs), the collective hope of the community, who got accepted at Stanford, but could not handle the demands of college and returns home a dropout. There is Vanessa, Usnavi’s romantic interest, though he cannot quite bring himself to tell her how he feels. She, too, is trying to break out of the neighborhood and to move downtown, but lacks the means and credit score to do so.

There are the beauty salon ladies, also packed to move on, while Usnavi and his abuela Claudia, the woman who raised him, yearn to go back to their homeland in the Dominican Republic.

The script by Quiara Alegria Hudes juggles these story lines well, though the cumulative effect and the tidy resolutions seem too telenovela. Still, these characters are easy to emphasize with and we soon become invested in their plights, however sketchy they may be.

Miranda gives them each a spotlighted solo to express their yearnings, while choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler never lets them stand still long, and they rarely walk when they could just as easily dance. His sensuous movements combined with the sinuous melodies prove remarkably infectious.

Miranda, who went on to write new Spanish lyrics for Broadway’s current West Side Story revival, opens In the Heights with a rapping tour of the neighborhood that hooks us with his buoyant, if occasionally errant, rhymes. The tunes keep tumbling out all evening, from the pulsing 96,000 --- the potentially problem solving amount that someone has won with a lottery ticket bought in Usnavi’s store, to the explosive club dance music that pierces the night just before the Fourth of July eve power failure and even the sprightly song of the piragua (snow cone) vendor who “keeps scraping by.”

Sabrina Sloan, Isabel Santiago, Arielle Jacobs
and Genny Lis Padilla in In the Heights.
(Photo by Janet Macoska)

Director Thomas Kail, who made his Broadway debut with In the Heights like so much of the creative team, has a vibrant cast that is on par with the original company and very similar in physical appearance. Beltran may not be quite as charismatic as Miranda, but he has a musical, sing-song voice and an open, inviting spirit.

Jacobs is a cool beauty who opens up her heart to us very winningly, Elise Santora (Abuela Claudia) has a surprisingly strong voice for a little woman, and Shaun Taylor-Corbett has personality to spare as ambitious young Sonny, the bodega go-fer.

It is rare enough to encounter an original story in a Broadway musical these days, or at least one that is not a slavish remake of a popular movie. In the Heights has plenty of antecedents and influences, but it feels fresh, and it introduces in Miranda a talent that should be around for a long time to come.

IN THE HEIGHTS, Broward Center, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Continuing through Sunday, March 28. Tickets: $23-$72. Call: (954) 462-0222.

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