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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 8, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 41
In the Heights mixes the modern with the traditional
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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In the Heights mixes the modern with the traditional

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

In the Heights
5th Avenue Theatre
Through October 17


In the Heights may appear as a newer musical, having only been on Broadway in 2008, but the show is much more traditional and has its roots deeply seated in Broadway musical history. The music is in the modern hip-hop/rap style, but the show has several beautiful ballads as well, and like every good musical, each song helps to promote the characters' ambitions just a little further. The story is definitely familiar, exploring such topics as cultural traditions, parents wanting better for their children, reaching for your dreams, and trying to find oneself in a bustling world, but this unique, original method in which the story is told is what makes the show such a success.

Taking place in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood (located in north Manhattan), the show's setting is of tenement buildings and a distant view of the George Washington Bridge. It is morning and the day is about to start for this mainly Latino neighborhood. Usnavi opens his bodega and introduces us to his neighbors and their lives. The salon next door is run by Vanessa (Usnavi's romantic interest), Daniela, and Carla, and is where women gather to gossip. The next-door limousine rental/dispatch service, run by Kevin, his wife Camila and their hired help Benny is celebrating because Kevin/Camila's daughter, Nina, is coming home from Stanford College. What the parents don't know is that Nina has dropped out. All of the neighborhood seems to revolve around "Abuela Claudia," a grandmotherly character who holds the reigns on this small community as her own personal schoolroom, educating others and highly endeared to those around her.

The musical's main character and narrator Usnavi (played by Joseph Morales) does a good job of introducing us to the neighborhood through song, but the lyrics are a little difficult to understand until the ear gets familiar with the hip-hop/rap style. The main female character Nina (played by Arielle Jacobs) has a very strong voice. Last seen in Seattle as Gabrielle, the lead in High School Musical, Ms. Jacobs has grown a great deal and fills out a more adult role without any problems. In fact, all the women in the show have great voices. When the females are given their chances to shine, they belt it out, ringing the rafters and amplifying the auditorium.

Two of the important features of this show are the music and the choreography. The music (written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also starred in the original production) blends together several different modern and traditional styles. The first act is more focused on the hip-hop/rap/salsa flavors, but the music tends to get a little too loud, which makes it difficult to understand the lyrics. In a show like this, the lyrics are just as important as any character on the stage. The second act seems to blend more traditional Broadway styles, which was the exact intent of the composer/lyricist. The choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler) is fantastic! It puts on the correct amounts of Latino dance mixed with street dancing, all the while not forgetting that it is still a Broadway production. The dancers move about on stage with a realistic sensuality that seems to come from the heart.

In the Heights was originally produced on Broadway in the 2008 theater season and immediately became a hit. Nominated for 13 Tony Awards (as well as the prestigious 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), the musical won four Tonys including Best Musical and Best Choreography. The musical also won a 2009 Grammy Award for its Original Cast Album. Famous previous residents of Washington Heights include Maria Callas, Laurence Fishburne, Lou Gehrig, Henry Kissinger, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and TAKI 183, one of the originators of New York graffiti - a person that is given a nod to in the show. While the music keeps the audience wanting to move, it is the story line that they will take away with them. There is definitely something everyone can identify with in the Nuevo-classic style of the Broadway musical.

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