The Syncopated Music of Everyday Life from the Corner Bodega
Coffee, light and sweet, is the fuel that keeps a busy world in motion in the new musical “In the Heights,” a singing mural of Latin-American life that often has the inspiriting flavor of a morning pick-me-up on a warm summer day.
Light and sweet are actually just the words to describe this amiable show, which boasts an infectious, bouncy Latin-pop score by a gifted young composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a spicy book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, and a stage full of energized, energetic performers you can’t take your eyes off and won’t want to.
An engaging Erick Guijarro is front and center for much of “In the Heights,” which opened July 1st at Long Beach Playhouse. He plays the central role of Usnavi, who dispenses all that café con leche at the local bodega, the regular pit-stop for a neighborhood full of outspoken characters.
In the terrific title number that opens the show, Mr. Guijarro raps a cityscape into vibrant life over the rumbling rhythm of a bass line. Shredding the air with his arms, rhymes percolating on his tongue, he introduces us to the men and women whose daily troubles — overdue bills, overheated romances and overtaxed hearts — will form the episodic story that provides a slender spine for Mr. Miranda’s musical valentine to the barrio.
Abuela Claudia (Gisela Flores) is Usnavi’s surrogate grandmother, whose purchase of her daily lottery ticket on this hot summer morning just before the Fourth of July will have significant consequences for almost everyone in the ’hood. Camila and Kevin Rosario (Kaya Carr and Erik Ortiz) run the gypsy cab company next door to Claudia’s home — incongruously still called O’Hanrahans, but who could afford a new sign?
Benny (Ja’lil Nelson), their prized employee, harbors a secret (and forbidden) crush on their daughter, Nina (Angie Chavez), who has just returned from her freshman year at Stanford with a conscience troubled by the economic stress the family is enduring to keep her there. Down the block Nina’s arrival adds a welcome new strand to the dense fabric of gossip woven daily by the women working in the hair salon owned by the tart-tongued Daniela (Sofia Bragar), who is happy to fabricate artificial news to go with the fake nails, if necessary.
Rendered with exacting, gritty verisimilitude by set designer David Scaglione, this sun-drenched block of Washington Heights represents a panorama of barrio life, suggesting authentic despair, serious hardship and violence. Yet, in this sweeping image of the urban underclass, one of the most pressing questions animating local conversation is whether the girl who made good will choose to return to that fancy university. The subplots do accrue emotional tension and dramatic momentum in the story, but all the kernels of conflict troubling the block are resolved with sentimental fluidity in the musical’s second act.
Still, the emotional heart of the show is the ambivalence most of the characters feel about their neighborhood — and their lives — and this uncertainty is given powerful expression in Mr. Guijarro’s songs. Almost all these people are exiles from a history of greater economic want somewhere else — Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico — but their affection for the community they’ve forged in a rundown neighborhood is shadowed by a desire to escape once again, to a life of surer promise.
Unfortunately, with gentrification oozing inexorably up the West Side Highway, they are more likely to be forced across the bridges into more precarious neighborhoods; Daniela has already signed a lease in Queens.
A clever shout-out to Cole Porter in the opening song attests to Mr. Miranda’s scholarly affection for musical theater. (In many ways “In the Heights” suggests an uptown “Rent,” topped with salsa fresca but without the sex, drugs and disease.) Some of the more earnest anthems, effective as they are, run in grooves derived equally from Broadway formulas and the new power-pop idioms employed from today’s celebrity artists, like Jennifer Lopez or Mark Anthony. But every number is sung with heart, urgency and solid showmanship. The sweet Ms. Chavez, the saucy Ms. Bragar, and the fierce Kat Gutierrez, who plays Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest, have particularly rich, powerful voices.
In the up-tempo numbers and the rapping solos and duets, Mr. Guijarro’s musical voice shines forth most pleasingly. The hip-swaying rhythms of Latin music have not gained much traction in theater, so it is a pleasure to hear an unfamiliar sound finding fresh expression onstage. The director, Miguel Cardenas, keeps the stage humming with activity, as characters dance, prance or merely walk in time to the ecstatic bursts of brass and the insistent beats of Mr. Guijarro’s rap. And there are also many numbers that might be described as good old-fashioned Broadway ballads, such as “It Won’t Be Long Now” and “When You’re Home.”
Director Cardenas is aided in this mission for motion by Anthony Tuason’s joyous choreography, which synthesizes street styles and Broadway athleticism, showcasing the fabulously elastic bodies of the ensemble. A particular standout is Kat Montanez, playing a sweet-hearted graffiti artist, who seems to have little springboards in her sneakers.
An uncalculated exuberance touches almost all of the performances at one time or another. Especially delightful comic flair came from Zachary Balagot, a young charmer, as Usnavi’s would-be lothario cousin. And when the collective dance numbers catch fire, heat fills the stage and starts flowing outward, like water from a hydrant turning to steam as it hits the asphalt on a July day.
IN THE HEIGHTS
Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda; book by Quiara Alegría Hudes; conceived by Mr. Miranda; directed by Miguel Cardenas; choreography by Anthony Tuason; music directors, Gabrielle Maldonado and Stephen Olear; set design by David Scaglione.
WITH: Erick Guijarro (USNAVI DE LA VEGA); Angie Chavez (NINA ROSARIO); Erik Ortiz (KEVIN ROSARIO); Kaya Carr (CAMILA ROSARIO); Ja’lil Nelson (BENNY); Kat Gutierrez (VANESSA); Zachary Balagot (SONNY); Gisela Flores (ABUELA CLAUDIA); Sofia Bragar (DANIELA); Briana Gonzales-Diaz (CARLA); Kat Montanez (GRAFFITI PETE); Jacob Palacios (PIRAÜERO); Naomi Groleau (ENSEMBLE); Jeremy Padrones (ENSEMBLE); Ariana Rubio (ENSEMBLE); Capone Walker (ENSEMBLE); Katarina Brown (ENSEMBLE); Adrian van der Valk (ENSEMBLE); Nina Rae (ENSEMBLE); Alexandro Gales (ENSEMBLE)
Performances are July 1 – August 5, 2023. Time is approximately two hours, 20 minutes plus 15 minute intermission. For tickets, see: https://lbplayhouse.org/event/in-the-heights/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Michael Hardy