Just a blind squirrel

… hoping to find a nut now and then

In the Heights: An unexpected delight

with 2 comments

If it’s a Broadway show coming through San Francisco (and it doesn’t star Harvey Fierstein), I’m there, so there wasn’t any question I was going to see “In the Heights.” But I confess I wasn’t particularly excited about the show based on the description and listening to clips from the soundtrack.

A show about the Hispanic immigrant experience in New York City had little resonance for me. For one, New York is one of my least favorite cities in the world and the glorification of it irritates the life out of me. Shows about people struggling to get by also generally aren’t my cup of tea (unless it’s puppets doing the struggling); while I loved “Rent,” that’s a rare exception to the “don’t bum me out” rule I usually bring to my entertainment choices.

And while I’m the daughter of an immigrant, the German-American experience doesn’t really give me the ability to connect readily to the the subject matter of “In the Heights.”

I assumed that the accolades and praise heaped upon this show, which won the Tony Award for best musical in 2008, were in part because in somehow shook up the conventions of Broadway, brought unheard voices to the stage, opened up theater to a new audience, etc. … none of which is primarily what I’m looking for in a musical, being mostly a devotee of Sondheim and Phantom/Les Miz/Lion King-type spectacles.

So I’m very pleased to report that “In the Heights” is a wonderful show. It’s far more traditional a musical than I expected — and that, to me, is a good thing. The plot is barely there, revolving nominally around the fate of several businesses in the Washington Heights neighborhood in which it’s set, but it still feels like a show with substance.

Credit goes to the outstanding cast for giving it that heft. In particular, Kyle Beltran brings charm and appeal in the lead role of Usnavi, making you care about the life-changing decision he faces regarding the bodega he owns and operates. He also handles the challenging rap sections of the score adeptly. (Below is Corbin Bleu as Usnavi from the Broadway cast performing the opening number.)

Also memorable are Shaun Taylor-Corbett as cousin Sonny and Arielle Jacobs as struggling Stanford student Nina. Taylor-Corbett takes a purely comic-relief role and elevates it above the status of jester to something endearing. Jacobs combines the cuteness necessary for the role of a teenager with emotional heft and a beautiful voice. (The entire cast, it probably goes without saying, is ridiculously talented, both vocally and in the lively and intricate dance numbers.)

Below is not the best video, but a fantastic example of the talents of Arielle Jacobs singing “Breathe,” one of my favorite numbers from the show.

I admit to connecting with the character of Nina, who not only attends my alma mater but also is dealing with financial struggles to go there. When  I was at Stanford, I worked year-round to help afford it — my senior year, I had three jobs — and my family made great sacrifices to help foot the bill. To this day, I get particularly irritated when people mock my school as the playground of rich kids; although, yes, many who go there come from affluent families, plenty come from more modest backgrounds.

As a former techie, i also appreciated the multi-level set design and the clever use of phantom doorways that moved out from the physical storefronts to expand the acting space.

It’s hard to say exactly what it was about this show that made me appreciate it more than I ever expected to (though I’ve just spent far too many words trying to do just that). It’s genuinely entertaining, heartfelt and endearing, and I’m very glad I got a chance to see it.

Written by ChrisShut

June 10, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Posted in Theater

Tagged with , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Ahhh, Arielle. I’m totally ripping the audio from that video, haha. She’s amazing. Her, Jennifer Damiano, and Lea Michele are my top three right now. 🙂

    So I’m intrigued– why do you not like New York?


    June 27, 2010 at 2:11 am

    • Wow, I guess all I’ve done here so far is rip on cities I dislike :-p

      New York is just too big, too loud, too full of its itself for my taste. I might warm up to it if it would just calm the eff down and get out of my face, you know?

      But I do want to visit there soon just for the Broadway experience. I’ve denied myself that for too long because of the emotional gutwrench, but I think I could handle it now.


      June 27, 2010 at 11:02 am

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