The Heights of the title are Washington Heights, a Dominican-American neighbourhood of New York at the top end of New York. It’s a neighbourhood familiar to composer/lyricist Lin Manuel Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican origin, and was brought up In the Hood.
The characters are knit together in a strong and vibrant sense of community, bound together with Latin-inflected music.
So there is a strong autobiographical element in ‘In The Heights’. The narrator – Usnavi, who owns a convenience store – is a rapper, as is Miranda, who introduces characters and manipulates plot in the big-boned, loose-limbed style of hip-hop. His girlfriend, Vanessa, works in a hair salon and lives with a mother who would rather buy drink than pay the rent. Vanessa in turn leads to Daniela, the outrageously camp salon owner (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, channelling Chita Rivera for all she’s worth). Usnavi has a little brother, Sonny, who is the Mr Cheeky of the production, but also something of a social commentator. Also a substitute mother, the neighbourhood matriarch, Claudia, who has dreamed of returning ‘home’ but never raised the money.
The other family nexus is provided by the Rosarios – father Kevin, struggling with his taxi business, mother Camila and daughter Nina, who has flunked her opportunity to escape from the ghetto by dropping out of university – paying her way through college with two jobs left her too exhausted to study. Nina provides the other love interest with Benny, a non-Hispanic employee of Kevin. Cue heavy father and star-crossed lovers, one of several references to ‘West Side Story’, whose giant shadow the show cannot escape.
The characters are knit together in a strong and vibrant sense of community, bound together with Latin-inflected music. One of the first questions any successful musical has to ask is, “Why music?” and here it is the glue which yokes all the characters into a common set of references and sense of mutual regard; it’s what makes the community resilient. On the hottest night of the year, when for the nth time there’s a power cut and no aircon, what else can you do but hold a dance party?
The dance – street dance both literally and metaphorically - is at the core of the show, and the lithe ensemble is full of fizz, backed by a funky seven-piece band (‘In the Heights’ won a 2008 Tony for both Best Musical and Best Original Score). Damian Buhagiar’s Sonny is particularly sharp.
The quality of the music and the dance somewhat disguises the deficiencies of the book, which rarely rises above the cliché of soap. Everybody is good, beautiful, talented – where is the darkness to give contrast, or true drama? All offstage. Characters are mainly generic rather specific (Daniela and Sonny excepted). Deprivation in this barrio feels somewhat tokenistic, solutions are fortuitous (a lottery win), hearts and minds changed too easily. In the journey from college graduation show to massive Broadway hit, ‘In the Heights’ has obviously undergone an extensive revision which feels more like a makeover (and I don’t mean that in a good way). Edges are smoothed, poverty is given a romantic glow and the result is as romanticised and almost as unreal as the loveable Cockneys doing the Lambeth Walk in ‘Me and My Gal’. Quiara Alegria Hudes as writer of the book must bear most of the blame, but Miranda’s sententious lyrics don’t help.
Of the performers, Hamilton-Barritt and Bunagiar have the strongest-drawn characters and the funniest lines, and gleefully devour them. Of the rest, the older characters have the best of it. Not only are their voices more distinctive, the song writing moves into more conventional territory for musicals, allowing space for character and true emotion. Eve Polycarpou has a terrific smoky voice as Mother Claudia, and David Bedella brings tremendous integrity and touching vulnerability to Kevin.
Community spirit is a fine consolation, but it’s no solution to lack of opportunity, lack of healthcare and lack of funding. I can’t help feeling that a bit more anger and some stronger politics would have benefited ‘In the Heights’ as drama and ‘Book Musical’. But as a dance party it’s terrific.