In The Heights at PPAC
First of all, happy day-after-snow-day! Wow was that some heavy shoveling.
Secondly, you have until Sunday, Jan. 16, to get to the Providence Performing Arts Center to see the freshest music and dancing to hit Providence in a long time. In The Heights, the Tony-award-winning musical about life in a New York City barrio, will expand your horizons of what a Broadway show can be. If you’ve ever felt that musicals tend to be schmaltzy, staid affairs with no relevance to modern life, this is the one for you – it’s full of hip-hop and salsa, with a mostly Latino cast and incredible, verve-filled dancing. It’s also a winning coming-of-age/love story that explores what it is to feel at home in our multicultural world, and it boasts a gorgeous, dynamic set and accomplished performances. In short, this is one to see. It’s great date-night stuff, and its modern feel will captivate any teenager who might otherwise resist a boring night out with the ‘rents. And, striking a chord in a city that just elected its first Latino mayor, it’s also a window into another culture and a celebration of how Latinos are creating vibrant communities in US inner cities.
(In fact, mayor Angel Taveras was set to give a brief speech introducing the show Tuesday – he’s Dominican-American, like the show’s protagonist – but had to cancel in favor of blizzard preparedness. Good job, mayor Taveras! The plows were totally on it along my street.)
The show is set in Washington Heights, a way uptown, Dominican/Cuban/Puerto Rican neighborhood of tenement buildings, here portrayed in a set that makes rich use of all the vertical space available to it. The George Washington Bridge towers in the background and a taxi company, bodega and hair salon ground the buildings to the fore. First person on stage: a graffiti artist, a young punk in a wifebeater and backpack full of spray cans, who gets to work tagging the bodega. Wham! Right away, you know this is not your parents’ musical.
Graffiti Pete is swiftly caught by Usnavi, our hero and the owner of the bodega. A young Dominican-American whose parents have died, leaving him an unlikely moniker – they named him for the first thing they saw when they came to the states, a ship with US Navy written on its side – and the pressures of running a store at a young age. He’s a sweet soul who supplies newspapers and coffee to the neighborhood. His family are Abuela Claudia, an elderly Cuban immigrant who lives next door and has looked after him from a young age, and his cousin, the feckless but charming young Sonny.
Usnavi, played by the immensely likeable Joseph Morales, breaks straight into rap for the song "In The Heights," the first of many infectious ensemble dance numbers. The lyrics, like much of the show, explore the ever-changing, multicultural world of this immigrant neighborhood. Throughout the show, much of the storytelling is done in the songs, and the cast’s strong voices keep things clear and moving along.
As usual, I won’t say too much about the plot, except that Usnavi must figure out how to find his way and where he belongs – and that there’s a love story involving beautiful hairstylist Vanessa, played by golden-voiced Lexi Lawson. There’s also a second main story line involving Nina Rosario, played by the excellent Genny Lis Padilla. She’s the neighborhood’s star student and a friend of Usnavi, and she’s returning from her first year at Stanford. She also faces an internal struggle, as well as a star-crossed romance with handsome Benny, played by Nicholas Christopher, and tough decisions involving her parents’ taxi company. Throw in a lottery ticket, a blackout, a nightclub and more street art, and it all makes for rather innocent, old-fashioned fun, despite the modern urban gloss. At bottom, this is a good-hearted bunch of people facing touching struggles about how to navigate the world, and it’s impossible not to fall for them.
This is not the original cast – they just wrapped up a three-year engagement on Broadway that featured some star-making performances, not the least of them Lin-Manuel Miranda, the incredibly talented Puerto Rican-American who wrote the first version of the story while he was a sophomore at Wesleyan (he also wrote the entire Grammy-winning score, AND played Usnavi on Broadway to rave reviews, and it’s safe to say we’ll be hearing more about him). But the touring company is experienced – a couple of Rent alums, even two former American Idol contenders – and all are charismatic and assured. Then there’s the choreography, which is simply amazing – it’s worth seeing the show just for the dancing. While the dialogue can be a little sentimental at times, the themes are universal and the songs catchy and stirring, with clever and often witty lyrics.
One word of caution: if you’re hard of hearing or completely unused to hearing rap or street slang, you may find parts of In The Heights difficult to follow. Main character Usnavi’s songs are nearly all rapped, and the characters occasionally break into Spanish, although never for long.
Besides the usual well-dressed theater-going crowd, which is overwhelmingly white, there were some Latinos and people of color in Tuesday night’s audience. It was great to see a show that could reach out and help pull the state’s residents together. Worth seeing on many levels.