Theater review: In the Heights at TBPAC

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What In the Heights is about:


In the Heights is a series of interwoven events that demonstrates the camaraderie of a Latino neighborhood in Manhattan’s Washington Heights-- it's more slice-of-life than anything else. For example, Nina Rosario returns home from college after losing her scholarship because of low grades.  Her father disapproves of her leaving school and also of her love affair with Benny, an African-American who works as a driver at Mr. Rosario's limo service. Usnavi, who runs the corner bodega, tries to win the heart of Vanessa, a hairstylist who works at the salon next door, and he longs to return to his homeland. The girls at the local beauty shop dish the dirt. The neighborhood has a blackout during the hottest time of the year. And Graffiti Pete is trying to make it with any girl who will have him (which is none).  The one fault of this show is that plot (book by Quiara Alegria Hudes) is a rather slight one without much at stake, and there's no real resolution at the end.


Why You’ll Like In the Heights:


But the plot isn’t the point of the show. It is the rhythm and flavor of the performers’ movements, speech, and body language, the infectious dance numbers that make you want to get up and salsa right along with them. Also, the show has a great sense of humor in a day-to-day kind of way. The characters communicate in their own unique styles: Usnavi through his poetic rap lyrics, Nina in more of a subdued, lyrical manner, Graffiti Pete through his funny quips.


Things to Consider:


The story is somewhat idealized, with none of the harsher side of barrio life.  It shows the every day tribulations of not being able to pay the bills, girlfriend problems, wanting very much to move up in life, desperately wanting something better for one’s children. There are none of the grittier problems of drugs and crime.


The dialogue is sprinkled with Spanish, which makes it a delight to the ear.  However, for me the dialogue and lyrics were sometimes difficult to understand (though it was obvious that most of the audience did understand, because they were laughing and reacting.)  Though all of the musical numbers were impressive, there were no really outstanding songs in the show.


Cast:


The cast gives a flawless performance.  They exude enthusiasm and act as though they love performing in this play.  Though every single actor and dancer in the show excelled, there were some standouts in this multi-talented cast:


Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, who plays the part of Vanessa, has a powerful and compelling voice that rises above the frenzied dance numbers.  Throughout the show, she has a magnetism that draws us to her. Isabel Santiago plays the effervescent Daniela.  She’s funny and flip and flirty, and when she is on the stage, all eyes are on her.


Jose-Luis Lopez provides much of the comic relief as Graffiti Pete. At different points when the action of the show starts to stall, Pete comes in with off-the-wall quips and brightens things up. He plays this part with fitting irreverence. David Baida has a minor part as the soda cart operator who is always lamenting the fact that his business is being taken away by the Mr. Softee truck, but he plays it with such zeal, you gotta love him.


The dance numbers require great skill level to appear effortless. Everything from hip-hop and break dancing to salsa is included. The dances have an organic look to them, as though the dancers spontaneously break out into their moves. The stand-out dancer in the chorus is, hands down, Joseph Morales, who catches our attention first by dancing with Vanessa and making Usnavi jealous. Morales can move like none other, especially in the salsa dance numbers.


Artistic and Production Staff:


The set design by Anna Louizos is impressive.  It’s composed of a street scene with a bodega that sells coffee and lotto tickets, beauty shop, cab company and an apartment building.  All this with the George Washington Bridge as the backdrop.  The set is used in interesting ways.  The beauty parlor is extended by bringing two salon chairs out into the street, and the bodega/coffee shop has its interior in the street with a glass door leading back outside.  The level of detail makes the street look real, while the unrealistic effects (like the fact that you can see through the buildings) makes it fanciful and airy.


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Overall:


This is one of the first musicals that has a predominantly Latino cast of characters and uses hip-hop, rap and salsa. I’d recommend the show for the quality of its actors, dancers and singers and for the exuberant musical numbers. In the Heights gives a new dimension to the Broadway musical.


In the Heights, Oct. 27.-Nov. 1, Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sun., Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa, $38.50-$72.50, tbpac.org.


To read more of my writing, go to TampaBayArts.net.

In the Heightsnow onstage at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center for the first stop on its inaugural national tour — has non-stop energy. The most remarkable thing about this play is the driving beat of the music and dance numbers in many Latino styles from salsa to hip-hop. The vigorous ensemble cast provides a non-stop spectacle that flows effortlessly to the tune of the infectious beat.

This show started out as a college project for composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda. From there he opened it as an off-Broadway production, and the show garnered such attention and developed such a cult following that it was produced for Broadway. Since then it has won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.  In a way, the show embodies the dreams of its characters to make good in the larger world.

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