Sunday, March 9, 2008

In the Heights

This is a pleasant little fairy tale. I doubt the real-life residents of Washington Heights would recognize their neighborhood; it seems more like an urban Mayberry than the barrio. But in this season of plays about angry, highly dysfunctional people it’s enjoyable to watch a show in which everyone gets along great. The Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants seem so happy, spending their days and nights dancing in the streets, that I almost wanted to put my Upper East Side co-op on the market and move up there with them.

The real-life Heights residents are probably more creative in their dancing, though. These performers are all very good dancers, but they’re not given much to work with. Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography just repeats itself over and over with each number.

“In the Heights” ran successfully for six months Off-Broadway, which I think would be a more appropriate venue, although it seemed most of the audience wouldn’t agree with me on that. They responded so enthusiastically I began to wonder what they saw that I didn’t. Whatever it was, other critics saw it too, or at least in the Off-Broadway production, which “New York Magazine” named best musical last year and Drama Desk, of which I am a voting member, gave awards for outstanding ensemble and choreography, to mention just some of the show’s critical recognition.

Story-wise, not a whole lot happens, which is OK. The characters are all likable, as are the actors who embody them. Usnavi (Lin-Manuel Miranda), the main character, runs the corner bodega he inherited from his father. (Mr. Miranda, by the way, not only stars in the show, but also conceived it and wrote the music and lyrics.) The bodega is the main hangout, when they’re not dancing in the streets, for most of the others -- Nina (Mandy Gonzalez), the college girl who is the hopes of her parents who run the neighborhood car service; Benny (Christopher Jackson), her boy friend who dreams of opening his own car service; and Vanessa (Karen Olivo), who actually wants to move out of this jolly community, but that’s mostly because she wants to get away from her alcoholic mother -- who never makes an appearance to spoil this harmonious scene.

And, of course, there’s Usnavi, who serves as focal point for everyone and everything. He experiences the biggest -- only, really -- hardship when his shop is looted during a blackout. But not to worry, a winning lottery ticket appears, not the least bit surprisingly, to save the day.

And they all lived happily ever after.

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