Toward the end of his affectionate musical mosaic of a Latino neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, composer-performer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s character farewells his bodega by wondering, “In five years, when this whole city’s rich folks and hipsters, who’s gonna miss this raggedy little business?” That reflection will strike a chord with anyone who has looked on sorrowfully as yet another Mom-and-Pop shop closes its doors or another no-frills diner gets swallowed up in New York’s ever-accelerating makeover into a playground for money movers and trust-fund kids. It also sums up the bittersweet nostalgia that runs through “In the Heights,” providing a soulful counterpoint to its infectious celebration.
Transferring uptown after a well-received run early last year, the production continues the string of idiosyncratic musicals that have braved the leap from Off Broadway, following on the heels of “Avenue Q,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Spring Awakening,” “Grey Gardens” and “Passing Strange.”
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. From its catchy opening number, which tosses in references to Cole Porter and Billy Strayhorn while swiftly introducing a large gallery of key characters and placing them within a vividly drawn community, the 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, their struggle to scrape by, to trade up or to find love unmarred by the usual barrio staples of drugs, crime, violence, despair or real poverty. 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, adding nuance to the central theme of immigrants and their children forging a community only to have their unity challenged by the unstoppable forces of gentrification. But what’s more notable is the physical work done on the production.
Anna Louizos’ wonderfully evocative set has grown in scope, etching a wealth of detail into the funky row of storefronts and apartment buildings spread out in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. And Howell Binkley has redesigned the show’s lighting with a poetic touch, bringing a gorgeous color palette to scenes that shift primarily between dawn, dusk and nighttime, and adding visual excitement to the July 4th fireworks. The exuberant, brassy orchestrations and muscular sound mix are further pluses.
Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler take full advantage of the playing space, smoothly weaving the action and dancing in and out of doorways, up and down stairs, and into every cubby hole, giving the show a vitality that seems more spontaneous than studied.
This is some of the most spirited dancing on Broadway and one of the most limber ensembles. Blankenbuehler’s choreography shows a pleasing aversion to slickness and rarely lingers long in one style. Instead it evolves freely through flexing urban moves, sinuous Latin lines and wild aerial tumbles, refreshingly maintaining an element of considered chaos that heightens the energy and echoes the vibrant textures of Miranda’s toe-tapping score.
The songs are more shaped by character than narrative, giving a defining number to almost every member of the terrific principal cast.
Owner of the deli that’s the hub of the ‘hood, and dispenser of the cafe con leche that fuels its residents, Usnavi (Miranda) and leggy hairdresser Vanessa (Karen Olivo, long-overdue for full-fledged musical stardom) both have dreams of escaping their environment yet they remain anchored to their home and its people. Their hesitant romance is nicely balanced against that of troubled Stanford scholarship student Nina (Mandy Gonzalez) and Benny (Christopher Jackson), a dispatch worker at the car service run by Nina’s folks (Priscilla Lopez and Carlos Gomez).
Then there’s Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Robin De Jesus), amusingly striving to be cool, and their Cuban surrogate grandmother Claudia (Olga Merediz), the keeper of the characters’ collective memories and the heart of the show. Even ostensibly peripheral figures like gossipy salon owner Daniela (Andrea Burns) and her guileless staffer Carla (Janet Dacal) are generously drawn, while the Piragua guy (Eliseo Roman), defiantly pushing his cart of fruit-flavored slushies against the encroaching commercial threat of Mr. Softee, provides a lilting melody all his own.
The sense of people bound together yet each with a distinctive voice, honoring their cultural roots while determinedly carving their own identity, gives “In the Heights” real humanity that transcends its flirtation with cliche. That depth of feeling, together with the wit of Miranda’s lyrics, the playful dexterity of his rhymes, his dynamic score and a bunch of truly winning performances, make the show an uncalculated charmer.