Two musicals without star appeal or name recognition have made the move from Off Broadway to Broadway. Both “In the Heights” and “Passing Strange” generated enough public enthusiasm in their initial runs to warrant producers to take the risk. “In the Heights” has found its niche but “Passing Strange” is still struggling despite many strong reviews.
In The Heights
As we hoped it would, “In the Heights” has moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway with its Latino heart beating faster than ever. This beautifully staged, dynamically performed, and excitingly choreographed new musical is primarily the creation of Lin-Manuel Miranda, a multi-talented theater artist who not only wrote the music and lyrics but also stands out as the main character in a musical full of warm, funny, and exuberantly realized characters. Also at the helm of the show that Miranda first conceived as a student production during his Wesleyan days is director Thomas Kail.
Although some critics quibbled about the somewhat predictable and naive story that book-writer Quiara Alegrias Hudes has written about the lives and aspirations of a community of Latino people, young and old, who live in the Washington Heights section of New York, it appears to have been tightened, strengthened, and better assimilated into the mostly danced and sung structure of the musical. This musical could be said to do for Washington Heights what “Rent” did for the lower East Side, but without the despair.
The pulsating hip-hop-propelled title song number that opens the show immediately provides the temperament and the pulse of the neighborhood’s people. But it is the individual characters who quickly come into focus. It is to the musical’s good fortune that we care for these people as we see them cope with the inevitable commercial changes in their midst as well as with their own personal transformations. The musical takes place over the course of a July 4th weekend, complete with fireworks. Although Miranda serves as the show’s narrator, his vital presence and enlivening performance as Usnavi, a rapping local bodega owner, is felt throughout. Mainly it is the story of a family, the Rosarios, who are faced with the impending loss of their family taxi business. They are also dealing with the unsettling decision by their exceptionally bright daughter Nina (Mandy Gonzalez) not to return and complete a degree at Stanford University.
Usnavi’s romantic interest in the beautiful Vanessa, as played by a particularly vivacious and ultra long-limbed Karen Olivo, is as endearing as is his care-giving devotion to his grandmother, Abuela Claudio (Olga Merediz). Merediz takes the lead in two of the show’s many rousing numbers notably “Paciencia Y Fe” (Patience and Faith) and “Hundreds of Stories.” The main romantic conflict involves Nina and Benny (Christopher Jackson), the volatile young man who works for Nina’s parents (robustly portrayed by Priscilla Lopez and Carlos Gomez) but whom they think is not good enough for her.
All the action, under Kail’s impressive direction, takes place in an impressionistic, vividly evoked street setting designed by Anna Louizos. Many sub-plots sprawl across the stage, but they all connect when it matters and when choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler gets them dancing variations on salsa, meringue, bolero, and other Latin-based music and rhythms. However, it is Miranda’s terrific score, the virtually non-stop dancing and the extraordinarily gifted, good-looking performers that empower this incredibly invigorating new musical. HHHH
“In the Heights,” Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 West 46th Street. $21.50 to $111.50 or www.ticketmaster.com.
There is no denying the appeal of this rock concert cum testimonial cum choreographed recording session to young audiences either wary or tired of traditional musical theater fare. No matter how you choose to regard it, this attempt by Los Angeles singer-songwriter Stew to break through another Broadway barrier is unlike anything else on the Rialto at the moment, including those other young audience-pleasers “Rent” and “Spring Awakening.” This is essentially a quasi-biographical exploration of a talented but conflicted (okay, who isn’t?) young man who embarks on a personal path to self-fulfillment from youth to adult. The musical evolves in a series of dynamic musical episodes each delineated by typically over-amplified, hard-edged songs sung and danced by a small, superb company of on-stage musicians and performers.
They all concertedly take part in Youth’s journeys, digressions, and detours — experiences that will eventually lead him from naive innocence to artistic maturity. The music will certainly challenge ears not ready or eager to embrace either the predominantly gothic rock style of the score or the decibel level. We may assume that the young man named simply Youth (Daniel Breaker) is a reflection of Stew, an omni-presence both vocally and instrumentally. Growing up in Los Angeles in the mid 1970s, Youth rebels against the formality and structure of his mother’s (Eisa Davis) religion and the church they attend. He instinctively feels a revelation that the rock music that he is drawn to has a kinship with gospel music. Sharing his feelings with the equally unorthodox perceptions about music and the world with Franklin (Colman Domingo), the pastor’s visionary son, he is motivated to leave home and seek a more liberating experience among the European fringe.
Are we surprised that his travels lead him from Bohemian circles in Amsterdam to Berlin where the use of drugs and sexual freedom seem to be as motivational as the anarchists he consorts among? Are we surprised that he is eventually disappointed, disillusioned, and yearning to return home? It’s not all that easy for him. You may be familiar with the expression “Passing Strange” taken from Othello that infers to an attempt to assume different personalities as you seek to be more interesting to yourself. The musical focuses on the Youth, as he comes to the realization that making up stories about himself and escaping from the person he is destined to be is an essential part of growing up.
Stew, a singer, songwriter, founder, and leader of the Negro Problem, a pop-rock combo from L.A., plays the guitar, is a bit portly with a bald head, a goatee, and has an amiable personality. He also watches critically over his Youth. Although Breaker stands out as the ravenously adventurous Youth, as does Davis as his patiently supportive mother, Coleman Domingo, De’Adre Aziza, Chad Goodridge, and Rebecca Naomi Jones rev up the beat in a variety of roles.
Stew’s serviceable book is ripe with philosophical and allegorical pretensions. The music (co-written with Heidi Rosewald), notwithstanding its crafty intention, risks mocking various musical styles. It is the lyrics that ignite the music. (“At this point in the play we were planning a show tune/An upbeat ‘gotta leave this town’ kinda show tune/But we don’t know how to write those kinds of tunes.”) Annie Dorsen’s energized direction and Karole Armitage’s choreography don’t allow for any dead spots in a production that offers little visually. Designer David Korin’s displaces four musicians around the stage, each of whom are given plenty of opportunities to become fully involved with the characters. In Act II, lighting designer Kevin Adams employs a back wall of flashing fluorescent squares in an attempt to dazzle the eyes. But it remains for Stew’s lyrics, when they can be heard, to provide the dazzle we really need. HH
“Passing Strange,” Belasco Theater, 111 West 44th Street $26.50 to $111.50. 212-239-6200.