As summer treats go, Tony-winner “In the Heights” is very like the piragua sno-cone popular among the tuner’s heat-besieged barrio residents: It’s crisp and refreshing, drenched in thick syrup and gets pretty mushy by the end. With the immensely likable composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda reprising his original turn as philosophical bodega owner Usnavi, the touring cast re-creates the Gotham hit’s sultry multicultural charms. Edgy it ain’t, but the energy is irresistible.
For a show about assimilation — that of the Caribbean residents of Manhattan’s northern tip, who inherited Washington Heights from the original Dutch and Irish — the tuner most vividly illustrates the assimilation of street music and dance into traditional Broadway idioms. Miranda’s witty rapping seamlessly escalates into full-blown production numbers, which pick up Latin sound’s expansive range from salsa to mambo and meringue, like the radio dial flipping through stations with which the show begins. In the same way, Andy Blankenbuehler’s loose-limbed dance ensemble keeps turning individuals’ voguing into passionate group expressions of urban pride. Seemingly soaring across Anna Louizos’ cut-out set, as if inspired by the George Washington Bridge soaring behind them, the company rebels against the woeful storefronts by bringing out the joys of the folks struggling behind them.It’s a shame the storytelling is so much less dazzling than its showcase, but Quiara Alegria Hudes’ libretto casts those struggles in cliched, idealized terms. No one’s problems cut very deep: The main love plot is a limp “West Side Story” retread, and the neighborhood’s departing business (a unisex salon full of gals with sassy snaps) isn’t failing, just relocating to the Bronx. The major social critique involves the cast’s singing “We are powerless” (double meaning; Con Ed has pooped out), but there matters are left.
Miranda’s role, for all the actor’s charisma, becomes largely a waiting game: He weighs returning to the Dominican Republic while trying to get up the nerve to ask out beautician Vanessa (the smoldering Sabrina Sloan). For her part, she can’t wait to escape to gentrified West 4th Street, though why she’d want to abandon a drug- and crime-free block whose residents smile unfailingly is anyone’s guess.
Photorealism would, of course, be out of place here. But the dichotomy between the paper-thin plotting, on the one hand, and the extravagant emotionality of music, lyrics and dance, on the other, leaves “In the Heights” much less affecting than it aspires to be. Helmer Thomas Kail doesn’t ask much of his capable cast, dramatically speaking; the excitement they crank up never pierces the heart.
Having joined the touring cast in anticipation of the forthcoming pic version in development at Universal, Miranda is well placed to nudge his collaborators into the grittier territory the cinema form will likely demand. Perhaps onscreen the tale will finally reach “the Heights” of the musical powerhouse surrounding it.