Sometimes a show hits a sweet spot in the soul that leaves even a critic fumbling for words. "In the Heights," Lin-Manuel Miranda's beautiful valentine to a neighborhood, is such a show.
The musical's gifted, gorgeous cast delivers the show's wit and humor with affection. "Heights" bowled me over because of Miranda's infectious salsa- and reggaeton-inflected music. I sometimes bobbed along in my seat. The show also grabbed me because of its stylized urban telling anchored by a narrator who is a spoken-word poet.
The narratives in "Heights," seamlessly staged by Thomas Kail and filled with Andy Blankenbuehler's sexy choreography, are familiar. In a Manhattan neighborhood where Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, blacks and others live atop one another, people have dreams. Community mother Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora) wants to repatriate to the Dominican Republic. College student Nina (Arielle Jacobs), who lost her scholarship because she could not handle two jobs and full-time school, wants to return to Stanford. Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.), who works with Nina's family and has fallen in love with her, wants to follow both his heart and his desire to own his own business. Will Nina's parents sell their car service to underwrite her dream? And what will happen with narrator Usnavi (Kyle Beltran), who runs a bodega and fancies Vanessa (Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer) but is too shy to make a move?
The book may not be much, but the romance and longing in "Heights" are set to rhythms drawn from a stew that also includes bossa nova, dancehall reggae and show tunes. Songs such as "Benny's Dispatch," delivered by the pretty-voiced Douglas, "Champagne" and "96,000," both featuring Beltran, are heartwarming, if not quite memorable.
Still, what's so fresh, and refreshing, about this Tony-winning musical is its insider spotlight on a neighborhood we know less for its grace than for blight.
If "Heights" is, under everything, a conventional Broadway musical, it is one that pushes a door open. It has entered the canon because there is a hunger for contemporary insider stories that are well told with spice, with authenticity and with syncopated love.