Monday, March 10, 2008

Heights Opens: Did Critics Offer High Marks?

Heights Opens: Did Critics Offer High Marks?

Before I begin, please allow me to offer my humblest apologies to regular readers for being so very tardy in offering up this critics' capsule for In The Heights, as well as for completely failing to post my regular opening night feature.

I have an added omelet the size of Washington Heights on my face after receiving such a terrific, gracious nod from Modern Fabulousity over the weekend. To all of his regular readers, welcome to Steve On Broadway (SOB)!

Yesterday, the big musical Valentine to the neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan opened at Rialto's Richard Rodgers Theatre, after first conquering Off-Broadway last summer. Conceived and scored by Lin-Manuel Miranda, In The Heights comes to Broadway with a fresh book by Quiara Alegría Hudes and is directed by Thomas Kail and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler.

Miranda not only conceived the show, he's also starring in it along with Andréa Burns, Janet Dacal, Robin De Jesús, Carlos Gomez, Mandy Gonzalez, Christopher Jackson, Priscilla Lopez, Olga Merediz, Karen Olivo, Eliseo Román and Seth Stewart.

Singing its praises as "an uncalculated charmer," David Rooney of Variety strikes a high note: "What makes In the Heights so unique, however, is that despite the driving pulse of its Latin-American rhythms, blending hip-hop, rap, jazz, pop, salsa and merengue, this buoyant musical also nods reverently to the traditions of the show tune.... [T]he musical's plucky marriage of youthful freshness and lovingly old-fashioned craft is hard to resist. The chief criticism leveled at the show in its previous incarnation was Quiara Alegria Hudes' sentimental book, which takes a sanitized view of a close-knit group of folks in Washington Heights.... But that idealized perspective can be as endearing as it is limiting. It's a musical, after all, not a ghetto angstfest. The story's conflicts have been sharpened in the move, its emotional tensions deepened and its characters more fully shaped...."

Saluting "this scrappy little musical about chasing your dreams and finding your true home," while noting it "is Mr. Miranda’s own dream come true," Charles Isherwood of The New York Times shows remarkable enthusiasm among his criticisms: "If you stroll down to the Richard Rodgers Theater, where the spirited musical “In the Heights” opened on Sunday night, you’ll discover a singular new sensation, Lin-Manuel Miranda, commanding the spotlight as if he were born in the wings.... Directed by Thomas Kail, it is basically a salsa-flavored soap opera, and if there is an equivalent of schmaltz in Spanish, this musical is happily swimming in it.... Directed by Thomas Kail, it is basically a salsa-flavored soap opera, and if there is an equivalent of schmaltz in Spanish, this musical is happily swimming in it."

Proclaiming In The Heights as "an upbeat sweetheart of an urban folk tale," Linda Winer of Newsday is mostly complimentary: "Broadway's first Latino musical created by Latinos is a big, pulsing power-surge of a show.... But every time the middling book, by Quirara Alegría Hudes, steps over the gooey ledge of sentimentality, the crackling cast of mostly newcomers grabs back the sensibilities with one of Miranda's salsa/rap/Broadway songs or one of Andy Blankenbuehler's smart and slinky street/modern dances.... What's new is the authenticity of the immigrant stories, directed by Thomas Kail with standard Broadway types but a heartening minimum of stereotypes. And what's important is the music."

Paradoxically concluding it's "deeply flawed and deeply pleasurable," The New York Sun's Eric Grode writes why the two aren't mutually exclusive: "And so we have In the Heights," a padded, undisciplined, and almost irresistible blend of Broadway sentiment and a pan-Latino sonic hodgepodge of salsa, merengue, hip-hop, and even reggaeton. Along with director Thomas Kail and book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, the impish composer-lyricist-star has turned this Upper Upper West Side story into, to quote one of the many dance numbers choreographed with street-smart vitality by Andy Blankenbuehler, a 'Carnaval del Barrio.' It doesn't always seem to know where it's going or why, but it makes the path look awfully tempting."

Pining for "a few people being real, nasty and maybe both, and being able to sing about it," New York Post's Clive Barnes nevertheless musters up a two-and-a-half star review: "Unfortunately, In the Heights doesn't stray more than a brief subway ride from middle-age Broadway's comfort zone.... So the music is fun, the lyrics are clever, and Miranda is the finest performer of that name since Carmen. And while no one else in the cast is at his level, or has his chances, most are pretty damn good.... There is no real plot, no true drama. Everyone is as cute as a litter of kittens."

Dismissing that this doesn't match "earlier, headier heights," Joe Dziemianowicz of New York's Daily News pffers one outright pan: "The problem is that although the show is set in Washington Heights in 2008, the creators -- Lin-Manuel Miranda (concept and songs) and Quiara Alegría Hudes (story) -- have sensibilities stuck in the 1950s. The issues and dilemmas facing the characters don't really match those of contemporary society.... What it lacks in story and believability it makes up for in a vibrant rap- and salsa-flavored score, spirited dances and great-looking design. And the cast is sweeter than dollops of dulce de leche."

I'm due to visit The Heights a bit later this month and will have my own SOB Review shortly thereafter. But in the meantime, I can picture many an advertisement blaring lots of good critical soundbites, thus ensuring that this show may be around for quite awhile.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
A Chorus Line: From Priscilla To Mario Lopez (March 5, 2008)
Off-Broadway Hit Seeks Greater White Way Heights (May 23, 2007)

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At 10 March, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

Oh my gosh, this sounds great! I'm so excited about seeing it in just a few short weeks. Although I think I'll be on a sugar high afterward! I love immigrant stories, and I love the idea that it's a musical about a New York City neighborhood, that it's a Latino musical created by Latinos. I'm very psyched! From what I've read (I swear, I haven't gone overboard!) Lin-Manuel Miranda is pretty terrific.

It's interesting, I think the Variety critic, who says "It's a musical after all, not a ghetto angstfest," answers the Daily News critic, who argues that the issues and dilemmas the characters face don't match those of contemporary society. I guess I'll know more after I see it, but it sounds like "In the Heights" doesn't fit someone's view of what these characters' lives should be like. And what, exactly, Mr. Clive Barnes, is wrong with being "as cute as litter of kittens?"

Steve, great job, as usual, pulling all of the reviews together, giving us the essence of the critics without giving anything away. ModFab's praise is right on the mark!

At 10 March, 2008, Blogger E said...

You know what? I've got to take issue with the critic that claimed this show to be stuck in a 1950's mentality, thus deeming it out of touch with contemporary issues.

Miranda himself (in a Times interview) mentioned that he's received such criticism. "Not enough gang issues" they cried. His response? "That wasn't my experience."

Imagine the uproar if he had done a musical that centered solely on drugs and gangs in a Latino community? Dios mio!


At 10 March, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther and E,

I'll take it one step further. How dare critics deign to define an entire neighborhood or group of people by their stereotypes of what they believe it should be.

I'm looking forward to seeing this show later this month.



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