The Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights,” opened last night in Dallas as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Lexus Broadway Series. This production received 13 Tony Award nominations and won four: Best Musical, Best Orchestrations, Best Original Score and Best Choreography, so I was excited to check it out.
I was not disappointed!
For one thing, the pre-show last night was fun and festive. As the audience wandered in, volunteers from Z.O.A.S. Creative & Healing Arts painted a mural in front of the Winspear Opera House, while children and adults frolicked and posed for photos in the nearby reflective pool. Inside, salsa dancing on the stairwell added even more flavor to the evening. (Check out my statigr.am page to see some photos I Tweeted from the event.)
As for the musical, “In the Heights” debuted on Broadway in 2008 and is now making its North American Tour. The show skillfully blends Latin rhythms, freestyle rap and Broadway style show tunes creating a vibrant musical melange, shifting song and dance styles from one to another without feeling clunky or forced.
For those (such as my husband) who cringe at the idea of rap, you have nothing to fear. The spoken word pieces of “In the Heights” are not expletive-laden gangster raps extolling drugs, guns and misogyny. In this case, rap’s all about using rhythm, rhyme and clever wordplay to tell an uplifting story.
Nor should you be intimidated by “In the Heights” if you’re not bilingual. Sure, some lyrics are in Spanish, but you won’t miss out on the plot. In addition to contextual clues, songs often use an echoing line as translation, such as when the character Kevin (Benjamin Perez) sings of feeling inútil followed by its English equivalent, “useless.” (I’ll admit it took me a while to realize that piragua is the Puerto Rican version of shaved ice, but – in my defense – it had been a long day. The Piragua vendor’s songs were some of my favorites.)
Lin-Manuel Miranda started writing and composing “In the Heights” as a college student, and performed the leading role in the original production. Not only did he grow up in the Washington Heights area of New York City, but he still lives there today.
Given Miranda’s inner-city background, you might expect the show to be angst-ridden and political. Although the lyric, “Arizona be hating,” gave a brief nod to recent immigration issues, the true focus of this tale is on family dynamics, not politics.
The story’s threads are woven together through the mostly spoken word performances of the main character, Usnavi (Perry Young), a young man struggling to make a profit running the neighborhood store his parents opened when they immigrated to the USA from the Dominican Republic. Usnavi’s parents died long ago, however, so he was raised by Abuela Claudia (Christina Aranda), the neighborhood matriarch who lovingly keeps tabs on all the kids in the barrio.
The setting of Washington Heights is such a strong character in this musical that the staging remains the same throughout both acts – and it works. At first I thought the stage seemed crowded, but as the story progressed I liked how this emphasized the interconnectedness of the inhabitants of Washington Heights, where, much like small towns I have known, everyone knows everyone else’s business.
While “In the Heights” is rich with Latin-centric culture and detail, the over-arching themes are universal. Each of the main characters, for instance, faces a similar dilemma: they are at a pivotal moment in which they must decide between staying in Washington Heights or moving on in some manner, whether that means moving across town, across the country or even across the globe.
“In the Heights” raises questions that are important to us all, such as how to get ahead in the world without abandoning your roots. Best of all, it brings up these issues while entertaining us with music, dancing and a heart-warming story. I highly recommend it.
What: In The Heights, a Tony-award winning musical
When: March 13 – 25, 2012
Where: 2403 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201
Price: Tickets start at $30. Check availability and book online at the AT&T Performing Art Center official website.
Runtime: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including Intermission.
NOTE: While tickets were provided for review purposes, the opinions expressed in this article are wholly my own.