by Byron Woods
It's a bracing—and rare—experience in this region's theater to stand at the end of a show and say, "Oh. So that's what the future looks like."
It's happened twice now in the past month. Two weeks after the National Theater of Scotland's courageous production of BLACK WATCH showed the way forward for dramatic ensemble work, a touring production at Durham Performing Arts Center presents us with the future of American musical theater—or one of its futures, at any rate.
The show's name is IN THE HEIGHTS. And like watershed productions preceding it, including Jonathan Larson’s RENT, Rado, Ragni and MacDermot’s HAIR, and even Robbins, Laurents, Sondheim and Bernstein’s WEST SIDE STORY—composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda and playwright Quiara Hudes’ Tony Award-winning 2008 musical focuses our attention inexorably upon the life experiences of a community that had previously been largely eclipsed on the American stage. It chronicles the crises, celebrations and challenges that a group of everyday people face in the tightly-knit, largely Dominican upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights.
The way in which it does this is something of a revelation for musical theater. Miranda’s lyrics seamlessly mix rap and slam poetry—the genre of intricately rhythmic, rhyming spoken word performance first championed, appropriately enough, by the Nuyorican Poetry movement in the early ‘90s—with the meringue- and salsa-inflected hip hop, rock, soul and slow ballads in his score.
Notice is first served in the title song in the opening minutes of the show, excerpted in the clip above. The orchestra plays and central character Usnavi (Joseph Morales), young proprietor of a small corner bodega, narrates his buzzy, compelling verbal pinball instead of singing his way through the morning clientele:
They gossip as I sip my coffee and smirk
The first stop as people hop to work
1 dollar, 2 dollar, 1.50, 1.69
I got it
You want a box of condoms what kind?
That's two quarters
Two quarter waters. The New York Times
You need a bag for that? The tax is added
Once you get some practice at it
You do rapid mathematics
Sellin maxipads and fuzzy dice for taxicabs and practically
Everybody's stressed, yes, but they press through the mess
Bounce checks and wonder what's next
No, we are no longer in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Or, for that matter, Mr. Hammerstein’s.
But we are someplace that’s every bit as valid an American experience as theirs. And that may be something of a necessary revelation as well, particularly for a well-heeled, mostly white local theater-going population still too accustomed to linking Latina/o populations with migrant labor and immigration issues alone, thanks to the toxic political rhetoric of the times.
It’s hard to quantify, from the outside, just what influence any work of art has on people’s minds or hearts. But a musical like IN THE HEIGHTS has the thrilling potential, among other things, to make our sense of community at least a little bigger. In a time when so much political energy seems hellbent on shattering the unum of any larger American society back into the pluribus of small, self-interested and mutually antagonistic tribes, any impulse to the contrary should not be taken lightly.
It’s intriguing to note that fears divide the characters on this stage as well. A bright daughter who has stumbled at Stanford fears disappointing her parents and a neighborhood that looked up to her. A father is afraid that all he’s sacrificed for his family will have been for nothing. And though Usnavi cracks wise on the subject with his boys, he's scared he’s out of his league with Vanessa, a beautiful girl who fears that she’ll never get out of the barrio.
But above these are more transcendental—and familiar—concerns. What is our legacy? How do we keep good faith with our heritage, our present and our future? In so contingent a world, how do any of us make—or keep—any sense of community, any sense of home?
Director Thomas Kail briskly populates this neighborhood with vivid characters. Genni Lis Padilla is affecting as Nina, the bright child facing an uncertain homecoming. Her affecting solo, Breathe, silences us early in the production before Daniel Bolero and understudy Rayanne Gonzales flesh out the complexities in her parents, Kevin and Camila. Nicholas Christopher’s Benny provides Nina with solid support at mid-show.
Andy Blankenbuehler’s razor-sharp choreography animates both the community’s workaday and dance club scenes to Justin Mendoza’s nimble nine-piece band.
But this night ultimately belongs to Joseph Morales. His kinetic verbal jazz delivery of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s carbonated lyrics give this show much of its propulsion. While his character’s mix of street candor and optimism buoys us, it also never takes us too far above the grittier realities of his world. And the raw yearning Morales embodies in a moving Finale preoccupied with the question of home left more than one audience member in tears on opening night.
Theater can raise the visibility of a distant group of people. It can bring a community of strangers nearer to us, reveal our dissimilarities and our common causes, and make us less estranged.
IN THE HEIGHTS does this, remarkably, exuberantly and with heartfelt emotion. The future of the American musical looks great and sounds amazing. This, you've got to see and hear. You've got until Sunday, at DPAC.