Friday, June 25, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: Lofty Heights

The Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights (which is making its California debut this week at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles) provides such a genial, romanticized picture of inner-city life in a Manhattan barrio that it makes grittier NYC-based shows like West Side Story and Rent look like the gloomy Long Day's Journey Into Night by comparison.

I actually spent a long weekend a decade ago in the Washington Heights neighborhood celebrated here. While the atmosphere and people were pleasant enough, it was hardly the effervescent, drug- and violence-free setting In the Heights would have viewers believe. I also encountered a number of gay and lesbian Latino residents who, somewhat curiously, aren't represented among the musical's characters.

The most authentic aspect of the production is Anna Louizos' set design. From the moment I entered the Pantages and saw the storefronts and towering apartments above them (which aren't obscured before the show by the curtain), I felt like I was in New York City. Louizos is one of the best designers in theatre today; she also did the impressive sets for Curtains, Avenue Q and Minsky's.

In the Heights has numerous other things to recommend it. The characters are vivid, the songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who is recreating his original Broadway performance for the LA production as well as the upcoming movie version) are excellent, and Andy Blankenbuehler's energetic, hip hop-derived choreographic style works much better here than in the recent 9 to 5. Howell Binkley's lighting design also deserves special mention, especially for its impressive evocation of a fireworks display at the end of Act I.

The touring production's cast is attractive as well as talented. In addition to Miranda's engaging presence as rapping convenience store owner Usnavi, standouts include Sabrina Sloan as the object of his affections, Vanessa (Lexi Lawson will play Vanessa starting July 6), Shaun Taylor-Corbett as Sonny, Usnavi's cocky cousin, and Elise Santora as the loving Abuela (Aunt) Claudia. Fine support is given by Jose-Luis Lopez as the neighborhood tagger, David Baida as a seller of frozen confections, and the entire ensemble.

Unfortunately, complex conflicts are largely absent from Quiara Alegria Hudes' book. The most significant are between Nina (played by Arielle Jacobs), who returns home to the barrio after secretly dropping out of Stanford University, and her parents, Kevin and Camila (Danny Bolero and Natalie Toro). To further exacerbate things, Nina falls in love with Benny, an African-American employee of her newly-prejudiced father (a fine turn by Rogelio Douglas, Jr., who was recently seen on Broadway as a flamboyant Sebastian the Crab in The Little Mermaid).

The racial issue, however, is dealt with briefly and is fairly easily overcome, and a winning lottery ticket provides a too-convenient solution to Nina's tuition woes. Otherwise, barrio life is hunky-dory in In the Heights. Sure, everyone needs more money but that's true in every neighborhood nowadays. Usnavi's store window gets broken during a blackout but little of value is stolen.

A more telling indicator of the musical's sunny avoidance of darker, audience-challenging characters and situations may be reflected in the popularity of its LA opening. The virtually full house on preview night consisted mostly of white, affluent theatergoers over the age of 60. There were few young adults and, surprisingly, even fewer Latino/Hispanic people. I suspect In the Heights is too glossy and unrealistic — not to mention unaffordable — for the majority of those it claims to represent.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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