There’s an old joke about younger music lovers who are surprised to hear that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings. It’s entirely possible that there are younger Broadway fans who don’t know that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote or starred in any musicals before HAMILTON, but those of us a few years older most certainly remember IN THE HEIGHTS, Miranda’s tale of life and love over a Fourth of July weekend in Washington Heights. With an equally strong book by Quiara Allegria Hudes backing it up, the show was nominated for thirteen Tonys (winning four) and a Pulitzer Prize. If you’re not quite convinced already that Miranda was born with a gift for writing for Broadway, realize that IN THE HEIGHTS began as a project he did as a college sophomore.
It’s at the Fulton now, directed by Bob Cline, out of New York, who’s directed it before, and choreographed by Mark Stuart, who’s brought his dance troupe to the Fulton in the past. Cline has a sure hand with the directing, and anyone who has seen Stuart’s work on stage before will recognize his style, including the floor work for some of the characters in various musical numbers. There’s a raw physicality to Stuart’s choreography that’s easy to spot and gorgeous to watch, and that’s entirely correct for this show.
Usnavi, the local bodega owner and central figure of a surprisingly ensemble story, is Diego Klock-Perez, who is both a fine performer and a generous one, adept at letting the other members of the cast tell their characters’ stories without keeping all of the attention on him. Since Kevin and Camila (Ruben Flores and Melissa Blatherwick) have a car service business with issues, and since their driver Benny (Daniel Yearwood) is in love with their daughter Nina (Mili Diaz), who’s failing her classes at Stanford University, there are stories aplenty. Abuela Claudia (Debra Cardona) has lived, and still lives, a full life in the neighborhood, caring for neighbors and playing the lottery; Daniela (Tauren Hagans) is trying to relocate her salon to the Bronx because of the rents in Washington Heights, and her sometime assistant Vanessa (Kalyn West) wants to live in Manhattan, escaping her alcoholic mother.
Cardona’s Abuela (grandmother) Claudia is a dear, the archetypal immigrant grandmother from any possible country, Latino or otherwise. She tells stories of her home in Cuba as well as stories of her work when younger, cooks for whomever she can feed, and cheerfully takes in stray neighbors. To see her on stage is to remember your own grandmother. Flores’ Kevin, the car service owner, is equally fine to watch, a man not quite sure why his wife and his daughter aren’t as receptive to marching orders as his drivers are. The marital tensions between Kevin and Camila are a powerful dynamic and fascinating to watch.
As ensemble work, the opening number, “In the Heights,” is delightful to see, and “No Me Diga,” the salon gossip number that simply had to be there, is a joy, as funny as a piece gets. When Usnavi sells a winning lottery ticket for just shy of $100,000 to an unknown buyer, the ensemble “96,000” (a reference to the winning sum) is equally infectious. When a power outage hits the neighborhood on an insanely hot urban Fourth of July weekend, Daniela decrees a block party, giving way to the festive “Carnaval del Barrio,” both a music and dance show stopper. But it’s two smaller songs, Abuela Claudia’s and Usnavi’s “Hundreds of Stories,” and Camila’s “Enough” (laying down the law to her controlling husband and difficult daughter) that have the power to move hearts.
The set, by Paul Black, is its own star of the show, a street and exteriors so compelling that anyone who’s spent time in any New York neighborhood will know it immediately. A collection of small independent businesses and walk-up apartments, it’s instantly recognizable as someplace you know you’ve been. Katelin Walsko’s props aid the effect, bags in dumpsters, cans of cigarette butts, hairdressers’ photos on salon walls, and small signs in the bodega, as well as other touches, all being remarkably exact and true to life.
A show that combines salsa and rap with classic Broadway styles and popular music styles as well, IN THE HEIGHTS is one of Broadway’s great fusions of popular culture with theatre. It’s serious but it’s immediately relatable, and probably can only be disliked by someone – is there such a person? – who hates salsa. This is worth your time to see, whether you’ve seen it before or not.