Theater

Rhythm of the Streets

In the Heights floods the stage with the music of the barrio, but leaves the Skylight searching for more drama.

By - Feb 4th, 2014 02:33 pm
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Sishel Claverie is hoisted aloft by the street ensemble in a festive moment from “In the Heights.”

Sishel Claverie is hoisted aloft by the street ensemble in a festive moment from “In the Heights.”

In the Heights is the successful Broadway musical most people have never heard of, perhaps because Latino and rapper styles may dominate the Grammys but haven’t yet taken over Broadway’s tourist trade. Its rhythmic exuberance combined with high-powered production values kept the show afloat on Broadway for more than 1,000 performances and on Equity tour for more than two years. Besides its commercial power, In the Heights fits the “Revolution” theme the Skylight Music Theatre has built its subscription season around.

Offhand I can think of several Broadway musicals built around similar atmospheric contrivances and the plot pattern of boy meets girl, parents hate boy, boy loses girl, neighbors stick their noses in, girl defies parents, etc. But their storytelling devices were faithful and fresh to their times, not relying on the sketched-in methods of yore. The most memorable shows earned our affection through melodies that stuck in the heart or clever plotting that rewarded our commitment to the characters.  They didn’t rely on a mere wave in the direction of character and melodic connections.

In the Heights in contrast assumes too much from generic ethnic overlays, broad strokes and energetic gyrations while failing to create convincing dramatic characterizations of the lover pairings, the graffiti artist with a heart of gold, the cabbie trying to be bilingual, the hair salon gossipers, the adored grandmother figure, the street sexpot, all the neighborhood characters.

A first-rate production team sometimes distracts us. The hardest workers may not be the performers —  stars and ensemble alike doing double duty sliding out of the wings to handle the dances and singing. The hardest workers may be the hidden eight-member pit orchestra under music director Jeff Schaetzke, the sound-miking teams led by Gary Ellis, or lighting designer Holly Blomquist manipulating every bulb in the Skylight repertoire.

The concept, music and lyrics credited to Lin-Manuel Miranda and the book by Quiara Algeria Hudes  – developed over several years —  imagine a Washington Heights barrio in New York City where everyone is a struggling immigrant entrepreneur seeking a foothold. The street’s ethical principles are guided by their own matriarchal “abuela,” old Claudia from Cuba. From this hangs a series of soap opera tales among Dominican Americans and other minorities:  Unrequited love, rival vendors, a secret lottery winner, a power blackout, a riot — heck, the musical literally throws in fireworks to create such fireworks.

But it also throws in hip-hop, salsa, meringue and cumbias, percussive beats and courtship swirlings, street dances mixed with breakdancing, tableaus of punk swagger, disguised Broadway routines, operatic duets and the repetitive refrains found in Latin montunos (rural music). The numbers are such a catalog of rhythmic possibilities that at first you can’t just sit back and listen, you feel you have to move. But over time you start twisting in restlessness, wondering which elongated crescendos and repeated ensemble eruptions could have been cut.

Stage director Ragnar Conde clearly saw the problem. But his main solution was to load up on the flash fills rather than work for more lucid dramatic lines.

Rana Roman (with Tommy Rivera-Vega in the background) in a musical highlight from “In the Heights” at the Skylight Music Theatre.

Rana Roman (with Tommy Rivera-Vega in the background) in a musical highlight from “In the Heights” at the Skylight Music Theatre.

The story tells us again and again that Abuela Claudia  is beloved, but we never see it in veteran actress Christina Aranda — until she is absent late in the show and others emote about her saved possessions. The narrator, bodega owner Usnavi played by a Chicago veteran in the part, Tommy Rivera-Vega, spends so much effort ingratiating himself with his personality (considerable) and his accent (excessive) that he never establishes central character points.

A key musical plot number by Aranda is sung so automatically full volume stage center that Conde resorts to adding every dancer in the house to disguise the dramatic failures. Often the show is repeating routines and song builds it would have been stronger without.

In a company with some experienced imports, much of the acting power stems from the Milwaukee-grown – notably Rana Roman as Nina, who fears to tell her parents of her college failure and her love for a black man.  Roman works past ingénue stock moments to nail the emotional meaning in every solo handed her.

Faced with a daughter wandering from their dreams, David Flores and Ericka Wade overcome the parental clichés with vocal authority and passionate clarity.

Chicago’s Rueben Echoles as Benny provides energy and nimble flair while Katherine Brady steps up to the part of seductress Vanessa with a big voice and aggressive overstatement.  As catty hairdresser Daniela, Sishel Claverie — a notable mezzo out of New York City by way of Mexico — displays such winning vocal power and comic timing that she elevates every musical number, and she’s thrown into most of them.

A large supporting cast works tirelessly to raise In the Heights. They occupy our attention so enthusiastically that they, and the immigrant milieu they represent, deserve a better musical to relax into.

In the Heights will run through February at the Broadway Theatre Center. You can purchase tickets here

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here.

 

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