Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Carnaval del Barrio: In the Heights

I have to admit that I wanted to be the first to bring hip hop to Broadway. I own very little of anything that could be called hip hop, but when it’s used as part of a song or with the right rhythms, hip hop can be really awesome stuff. And even though my hopes were crushed, I was so excited when In the Heights opened on Broadway back in 2008. And all this time later, I was still ecstatic to see the show on tour.

And it surpassed all my expectations.

The Cast
Huge kudos go out to the amazing tour cast, lead by the talented and charismatic Kyle Beltran as Usnavi. There are times you leave a tour thinking, “I could not have seen a better cast on Broadway,” and that describes the In the Heights tour. Beltran is joined by the dynamic Rogelio Douglas Jr., who has such depth and richness in his voice, as Benny. Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer couldn’t possibly be a cuter Vanessa, and she imbues the character with a powerful voice and an innocent girl-next-door sweetness. Arielle Jacobs looks like she was made for the role of Nina, singing with power and gentle beauty. Shaun Taylor-Corbett is effortless and hilarious as Sonny, embodying the character so completely you wouldn’t even know he was acting. The impossibly beautiful Isabel Santiago (and fellow BroadwaySpace resident) is hilarious and vocally powerful as Daniela, and she gets to deliver what ranks as one of the funniest lines in all Broadway history, “I heard you and Nina went for a role in the hay!”

For the more mature characters, Elise Santora is a powerfully voiced Abuela Claudia, and Daniel Bolero is a moving and impassioned Kevin. Natalie Toro, recently of A Tale of Two Cities, pulls out all the stops as Camila and makes “Enough” a powerful highlight of the second act.

In short, it is an amazing cast. In an ensemble show, casting is all important, and here, everything is pitch perfect. This was truly a Broadway tour with a Broadway worthy cast.

The Structure
Structurally, the use of music in In the Heights is an interesting mix of classic Broadway and the pop opera genre. In the same way that Les Miserables is largely constructed of stunning solos for Jean Valjean, Javert, Eponine, and Marius, there are a fair number of soul-revealing songs in In the Heights—Nina’s “Breathe,” Kevin’s “Inutil,” Abuela Claudia’s “Paciencia y Fe,” and even Vanessa’s “It Won’t Be Long Now”—that function to reveal character psyche but are not plot-based scenes in themselves (though there is some plot advancement in most of the songs). In other words, they have more in common with “I Dreamed a Dream” than, say, “Serious” or “Put On Your Sunday Clothes.”

Songs are also used as snapshots into moments of life. “No Me Diga” and “Carnaval del Barrio,” for example, don’t have over-arching ideas driving them forward. That is not to say that they aren’t important songs. As an ensemble piece, In the Heights is dependant upon such snapshots to pull us into the lives of these characters.

And of course, there are plenty of traditional style Broadway songs—the opening number, despite its rap and Latino flavor, is all Broadway. “When You’re Home,” “Champagne,” and “When the Sun Goes Down” are all traditional Broadway songs with traditional Broadway purposes.

What can’t get lost in my librettist-perspective analysis is that these are remarkable, exciting songs. And the best of them all—“96,000”—is an old-fashioned Broadway showstopper. In fact, it’s probably the closest thing I’ve seen to one since seeing Carol Channing and waiters singing the title number from the revival Hello, Dolly! in 1994. It’s an exciting, thrilling number, a perfect amalgam of purpose, music, lyrics, choreography, and casting. It had a tremendous effect on me both times I saw it.

And that what In the Heights teaches us, that formula isn’t as important as effect. And there’s no arguing that In the Heights is extraordinarily effective.

The Libretto
Like the classics of the Golden Age, In the Heights is filled with loveable and memorable characters. It shouldn’t be—Sonny, Vanessa, Nina, Benny, Daniela, et al. are not outrageous caricatures, bigger-than-life personae, or historically significant. They are simply, to quote Sesame Street, the people on the street where you live. But they’re so funny, so honest, and sing such great songs, you can’t help but love them all. The next time I get to New York, I feel like I should go to Washington Heights, but without Usnavi and Graffiti Pete, I might be more than just a little disappointed.

Like all great literature (and pieces of musical theatre) that focuses on the life of one particular culture, In the Heights is ultimately universal because of the stories of the characters. What working class man can’t relate to the fear of being inutil, who doesn’t want to rise above his station in life like Benny, and who doesn’t love the home they want to leave behind? I couldn’t tell if I was more Kevin, Usnavi, Benny, or Nina.

In the Heights is a truly great show, one on par with shows like Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, and Hairspray. While many recent Broadway shows have been immensely enjoyable—Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Wedding Singer, Legally Blonde, Mary PoppinsIn the Heights counts as one of the greats. Of course, most of my readers will have already seen it, but I can’t help but celebrate my own discovery.

the Broadway Mouth
December 9, 2009

See footage of Rogelio Douglas Jr. and Arielle Jacobs. The sound isn’t the greatest, but their talent rises above.

This video is really fun and funny. Take the chance to meet tour Usnavi Kyle Beltran.