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The northern Manhattan neighbourhood on display in the new off-Broadway musical In the Heights is in flux: the Hispanic residents are being forced out by rising real-estate prices. Even so, the community maintains less quantifiable values: family, friendship, respect for senior citizens.
This show, created by Lin-Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics), Quiara Alegría Hudes (book) and Thomas Kail (direction), offers a vision that sometimes seems as sanitised as Times Square: prevalent New York problems – drugs, homelessness – are scant. Every conflict is resolved with the swish of salsa or the bump of merengue.
Yet the very entertaining musical routines, choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, cleverly evoke the desire, more pressing than a thirst for a tasty café con leche, to express who you would like to be. The energetic movement erupts along a thoroughfare, with its hair salon, bodega and tenement stoop, that suggests an updated Street Scene. But unlike that Weill opera, In the Heights and the musicals to which it more directly nods (West Side Story, Rent) present Manhattan not as a mecca of bitterness but as a romantic isle in which love and lust combust. The backdrop is the George Washington Bridge, twinkling with lights and, since the story takes place on a steamy Fourth of July, eventually exploding with fireworks. Usnavi, who runs the bodega, adores Vanessa, who works in the salon. Nina, on break from Stanford, has the hots for Benny, who works for her parents. And Abuela Claudia, portrayed by Olga Merediz, whose Act One number “Paciencia y Fe” is the show’s molten musical moment, gives the street its continuity.
The rhymes of composer-lyricist Miranda, who plays the rap-rousing Usnavi, are sometimes of moon/June banality, and, even then, don’t always make sense; Nina sings of days at Stanford when she would “stare out at the sea”, which would be news to anyone at that shoreline-bereft California university. But it is easy to look past In the Heights’s occasional lack of logic because of its enormous heart.
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