Thursday, May 13, 2010

"In the Heights": ☼ ☼ ☼

"In the Heights" won the Tony Award as Best Musical of 2008. It is probably unfair to call it a modern-day update of West Side Story, but you kind of can't help it. It's true that this time around the Puerto Ricans don't have the Irish to kick around -- it's half a century later and they and the Dominicans have got the neighborhood to themselves. (We know because we see Puerto Rican and Dominican Republic flags festooned on the apartment railings.)

Anna Louizo's inventive set looks so much like the real Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, that you can just about smell the sofrito and bacalao. You've got the unisex hair salon, the bodega, the car service (taxi) stand and several apartment houses open to the sky. This lucky, bouncy barrio even has a view of the George Washington Bridge.

Kyle Beltran plays Usnavi, who runs the bodega, which he has inherited from his parents. (He got his name when his parents saw a ship as they entered New York harbor upon emigrating. The ship had 'U S Navy' painted on the bow.) Usnavi is a very agreeable and hard-working guy whose coffee has become the neighborhood's addiction. Most of the show's action takes place in front of the bodega, as the locals walk in and out, carrying coffee and gossip.

Elise Santora plays Abuela, everyone's favorite grandma whose world-weary wisdom is reflected in her song "Paciencia y Fe" ("Patience and Faith"). Her granddaughter Nina (Arielle Jacobs) has been the hope of the barrio -- the smart girl who would go off to Stanford and succeed in the modern world. Unfortunately, Nina has had to drop out of school because she can't work and study at the same time.

The real connection to West Side Story comes with the humorous female chorus of hairdressers -- played wonderfully by Daniella (Isabella Santiago), Carla (Genny Lis Padilla) and Vanessa (Sabrina Sloan). Their first song "No Me Diga," which is about the glory of gossiping, comes right off the same boat as Bernstein/Sondheim's "America." It is the standout of Act One.

Music and lyrics are by Lin-Manuel Miranda who won a Tony in 2008 and a Grammy in 2009 for this show and for its Broadway Cast Album. Hip Hop rules the day here, with clever and inventive lyrics and rhyme schemes, and music that...well, music that...well.

Here's the rub. For this listener, Miranda is a lot better lyricist than he is a composer. His Hip Hop rhythms feel basically the same. There are two tempos: fast (with Latino feel) and slow. During 'fast' everyone break dances and hugs each other and during 'slow' the sentiment seems forced, like a Mariah Carey video. No one has bothered to develop the characters, so slow songs can't have much resonance.

Of course we want Nina to succeed -- but do we really want her hard working father to sell his car service business and become a laborer so she can go back to college? Is this the message implied here -- that good looking kids have the right to do whatever their heart tells them, even if it bankrupts their parents?

One more thing. This reviewer likes to walk around the theater to determine how the show sounds from different areas. One thing is for sure: if you sit in the mezzanine or above you cannot hear very well. With a show whose music is provided by an orchestra that is basically electronic, all the sound must be amplified through the house speaker system along with all the voices. This means that unless you are sitting close enough to actually hear or at least see a performer's mouth move you have no idea who is singing what -- it's like a record more than a live performance. And since this show is all about the lyrics -- you'd better be able to hear them. So a word to the wise: sit in the front, not...

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "In the Heights" Three Stars, which is to say you should go see it. It's fun and has some exciting moments. Several of the songs are excellent: "No Me Diga," "The Club/Fireworks" and "Alabanza" are perhaps the most memorable. The ballad "Sunrise," in which the stunning duet voices of Jacobs and Rogelio Douglas Jr. (who plays Benny) are featured, would probably be a showstopper if we cared a little more about the romance between Nina and Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.).

Special kudos to Shaun Taylor-Corbett whose Sonny lights up the stage whenever he dances across it.


"In The Heights"
Curran Theater
445 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through June 13

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know this isn't related to this post, but are you going to review this new show coming to SF about Edith Piaf? I recently read an article in Northside SF about the upcoming show and the woman who plays Piaf is reportedly amazing in the role. Her name is Naomi Emmerson.