The first performance of In the Heights at the Hangar Theatre was packed, perhaps in part because it is an earlier effort by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, which has taken Broadway by storm. Miranda’s songs for In the Heights, driven by Latin percussion wedded to Great American Songbook traditions, produce something that sounds both old-fashioned and contemporary at the same time. The result is something that will appeal to nearly everyone.
Washington Heights, at the northern tip of Manhattan, is a Dominican neighborhood, but the playwright Quiara Algería Hudes includes a healthy cross-section of the Latino/a spectrum in the characters that populate West 183rd Street and Broadway. She also dramatizes the tension between the Latin and black communities by including an element from West Side Story: Nino Rosario’s father does not think Benny, an African American, is good enough for his daughter. There are no white people in this world.
The entire story is multi-threaded. Usnavi (Perry Young), the second-generation bodega owner, yearns to return to Puerto Rico, but is in love with Vanessa (Gerianne Pérez), who yearns to free herself from her alcoholic mother and move downtown. Nina (Natalie Grace Ortega) is the “golden child” living out the American Dream for her parents (Celina Polanco and Danny Bolero), who run a car service that is in financial trouble. Benny (Austin Scott) is learning Spanish, so that he can run his own car service someday. Abuela Claudia (Amy Jo Phillips) is a Cuban immigrant who cleaned houses for decades and now refuses to take her heart medicine. Carla (Marie Christina Slye) and Daniela (Donnie Hammond) run a unisex hair salon that is about to close and move to the Bronx. It is actually Sonny (Nick Martinez), Usnavi’s mouthy but astute employee, who drives the plot forward and is able to turn events around in the end because he is perceptive in affairs of the heart.
There isn’t really a suspect voice in this entire ensemble. Granted, they are all mic’d and amplified, but high notes are hit and conversational cadences are managed while remaining on key. You are never worried about whether a cast member can handle a song. You instead can successively enjoy the power that soars out of Phillips, the ache in Ortega and Pérez, the delicacy of Scott’s phrasing, and the music of Young’s quasi-rapping.
If there is a weak aspect of this production, it is the choreography, which one suspects has been crimped and stripped down to fit onto the stages of regional theaters (perhaps frustrating Julio Agustin, its creator). During the ensemble numbers the dancers seem occasionally crowded and the physical exuberance limited by simple lack of space. But even when there are fewer people on stage, there are few of the acrobatics one associates with modern dance-influenced numbers and even the Latin-dance intervals seem surprisingly chaste.
The set (by Raul Abrego) is inspired, nicely mimicking the actual storefronts of upper Manhattan, with the band partially hidden between the bodega and car service in front and a mock-up of the George Washington Bridge in back. When the actors are on the red fire escapes hung beneath the lights, the effect of having voices coming from all directions is wonderful.
Musicals have a reputation for being frothy and insubstantial. In the Heights certainly doesn’t breathe a word about the drugs that have ravaged Washington Heights or many of the other social issues that dog this community. Instead Algería Hudes and Miranda focus on historical concerns, particularly the longing for their homelands so prevalent among these recent immigrants. Americans tend to assume all immigrants are unambivalently happy to be here, unaware that a century ago 35 percent of Italian immigrants, for example, returned home after making enough money to do so.
The relationships among the various Latin nationalities are portrayed as generally amicable, while Mr. Rosario’s prejudice against Benny is clear and unapologetic, albeit not in the least shared by his daughter. She herself, however, has suffered in the overwhelming white world at Stanford.
One of the most beautiful dimensions of this play is its portrayal of the diversity of Latin culture through the casting. Director Suzanne Agins has assembled actors whose faces manifest so many possible combinations of black, Iberian, and New World tribal blood. It makes the heart swell a little to see such a living evocation of e pluribus unum.