A visit to the Heights

In Manhattan barrio, family ties are tight, little things mean a lot and dreams abound

February 26, 2010|By Tim Smith | tim.smith@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

In the best-known number from the 1944 musical "On the Town," the northern and southern parameters of New York are succinctly defined: "The Bronx is up, but the Battery's down." For a great idea of a less-celebrated, intensely vibrant neighborhood in between, check out the 2008 Tony Award-winning musical "In the Heights," at the Hippodrome.

Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also contributed the music and lyrics (winning another of the work's four Tonys), this fusion of good old-fashioned showbiz with a contemporary urban/Latin beat is as light and irresistible as a piragua - the Puerto Rican snow cone peddled way uptown in Washington Heights.

Of course, there's a piragua-seller in the cast, along with lots of other types one might meet in this Manhattan barrio where family ties are tight (and tested), where little things mean a lot and where escapist dreams rise as often as steam from the sidewalks in July. That setting is strikingly re-created by Anna Louizo's scenic design.

Within this world, it doesn't take long to figure out who's going or staying, who's winning (literally - a lottery ticket pops up conveniently) or losing, who's not going to live to see the end of Act 2. The book by Quiara Algería Hudes doesn't shy away from any cliched plot device in this slice-of-life celebration, but embraces them all in an ingratiating fashion.

The result is a collection of mostly Latino characters with clearly defined personalities, tics and values (you've got to love the woman who's so impressed with a prospective apartment that has "exposed brick - on purpose"), and a neat little reminder of how we're all so much alike, after all. There's never anything pretentious or self-conscious about the musical, which reveals an earnestness and eagerness to entertain.

At the center of the action is Usnavi (there's a funny story behind that name), the corner-bodega owner who has Dominican Republic roots but a hard-to-break bond with his animated corner of New York. His musical language in the show is mostly rap. Kyle Beltran is a natural at that style, putting a vigorous spin on the rhyming patterns as he fleshes out the character in a winning performance that reveals Usnavi's alternately assertive, sentimental and, when it comes to the alluring Vanessa, awkwardly shy nature.

The soul of the Heights resides in Abuela Claudia, who keeps tabs on everyone and every desire in the neighborhood. Elise Santora brings to the role nuanced acting skills and warmly phrased singing.

Sabrina Sloan makes a vivacious Vanessa. Shaun Taylor-Corbett does a dynamic turn as Usnavi's cousin, Sonny, a young dreamer whose penchant for going theatrical makes him one of the show's most endearing components.

The musical's secondary plot line is driven by the Rosario car/limo service. Owners Kevin and Camila, strongly portrayed by Daniel Bolero and Natalie Toro, struggle as much with finances as with their daughter, Nina, who seems to be losing her way in the world. Arielle Jacobs does appealing work as Nina, and except for some flattening on top notes, her singing is precise and expressive.

Pouring on an accent as adroitly as she pours herself into a fabulously fitting dress (Paul Tazewell designed the show's evocative costumes), Isabel Santiago lights up the stage as Daniela, the gossip-slinging, generous-hearted salon owner being driven by high rent "from the barrio to the hood." Among the others making memorable impressions in the cast are Rogelio Douglas Jr. as Benny, the African American who ignites some ethnic tension (there has to be a little, even in a feel-good musical); and David Baida as the piragua man.

Conducting from a keyboard, Justin Mendoza leads a solid band that relishes the kinetic rhythms of Miranda's score. That score doesn't boast any earworm songs and tends to rely on a few basic formulas. But when the composer isn't forcing dialogue into the form of lyrics (Camila's angry "Enough" sounds especially awkward), he achieves a refreshing, flavorful energy.

The mix of English and Spanish in the show (the start of Act 2 threatens to become an episode of "¿Qué Pasa, USA?" before veering off) is cleverly achieved, adding to the naturalness of this invigorating excursion to the Heights.

If you go
"In the Heights" runs through March 7 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. $24 to $69. Call 410-547-7328 or go to broadwayacrossamerica.com.

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