Nicole Cline and Perry Young (photo credit: John Daughtry)
Failing to Reach the Heights
Dancap brings a tour to TO
by Stuart Munro
I first saw In The Heights on Broadway in the spring of 2009. Less than a year had passed since it won its multiple Tony awards (including the 2008 Tony for Best New Musical), and much of the original cast was still with the production. Tickets were still in such demand that I had to buy mine a week in advance, and even then it was in the last row of the balcony. Pre-show, the audience was charged, and I was excited to experience a show with which I was completely unfamiliar. By the time the curtain came down at the end of the show, I was confused. The plot was haphazard, the music seemed bland and repetitive, and the staging and choreography had been cumbersome. Nevertheless, the audience had loved it, and I blamed my lacklustre experience on my terrible seat, and possibly a bad sound design.
The plot is so fractured that it’s difficult to understand why several points are even part of the overall story.
I was excited to give In The Heights a second chance. Unfortunately, the non-Equity tour currently playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts has done nothing to change my impression of the show.
The plot of In The Heights is so fractured that it’s difficult to understand why several points are even part of the overall story. The action moves from scene to scene, story to story, in an awkward, episodic fashion, and sometimes so much time will pass between plot points that we’ve forgotten that they were going on at all. In brief, In The Heights tells the story of Usnavi (played on opening night by understudy Jeffrey Nuñez), the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, who is determined to move back to his parents’ homeland. He operates a corner store with his cousin, Sonny (Robert Ramirez) in the New York City neighbourhood of Washington Heights. The opening number, filled with clumsy exposition, introduces us to the other major players and their various sub-plots.
The spoken word (used primarily by Usnavi) is the most genuine and honest, even if it gets a little tiresome by the end of the evening.
Act I follows a fairly formulaic pattern: each character is reintroduced in a short scene that typically ends in some sort of argument or misunderstanding. Left alone, the character then proceeds to make his or her way to centre-stage to sing a song. The lighting is always the same: a bright overhead spot with a darkened background. The song ends in a blackout, and the cycle is repeated, ad nauseam. The music itself runs the gamut, from spoken word to Latin-inspired musical pop to generic musical theatre that sounds like it could have been material rejected from RENT. The spoken word (used primarily by Usnavi) is the most genuine and honest, even if it gets a little tiresome by the end of the evening. Many of the lyrics and much of the dialogue is in Spanish. Supporters of this practice insist that the spirit and meaning of the text will transcend any language barrier, but for me, this loss of clarity only serves to frustrate me and make me wonder what I’m missing. Act II awkwardly attempts to wrap up the various stories from Act I, and introduces some new elements of class and racial discrimination, which are never properly dealt with. Ultimately the show’s ending, which accompanies a change of heart from Usnavi, comes so suddenly and unexpectedly that I find it difficult to reconcile with the show’s overall story.
There are a few bright points in this production, however. Jeffrey Nuñez’s Usnavi is charming, sincere, and appropriately bashful. I’m unclear as to whether he’s scheduled for the entire Toronto run, or just opening night, but he was certainly able to carry the part. Likewise, Presliah Nuñez’s Vanessa (Usnavi’s love interest, intent on building a life outside Washington Heights) is full of drive and passion. Ms. Nuñez possesses a powerful voice which remains pure and honest throughout.
... the entire company simply looked uncomfortable and under-rehearsed.
Thomas Kail’s original direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s original choreography have been recreated by Broadway company member Michael Balderrama, but it is clear that this is all he is reproducing; the remainder of the company has clearly been given little guidance, and they manage to reduce their characters to caricatures, lacking any honesty or sincerity. I hesitate to suggest that this is because of their non-Equity status (Equity is the union of professional stage actors), but the entire company simply looked uncomfortable and under-rehearsed.
In The Heights tells the story of a close-knit community within the Latino population of cosmopolitan New York City. This story has failed to reach me twice now, and leaves me wondering if its content is simply too specific to reach out to a wider audience.