For nearly a year, I've been anticipating the second half of the Fairwinds Broadway Across America series. And I've praised the presenting Florida Theatrical Association for finally granting my wish for a slate of shows — topped by the 2008 Best Musical Tony Award—winner, In the Heights, aimed at a younger and demographically diverse audience.
Be careful what you wish for.
In the Heights (performed March 9-14 at Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre) refers to Washington Heights, a Hispanic neighborhood on the northern end of Manhattan, where the bodega is the cornerstone of the barrio community. In the script, orphaned store owner Usnavi (Kyle Beltran, re-creating the role originated by composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda) serves cafe con leche and cares for his loudmouth little cousin Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett) while pining for Vanessa (Sabrina Sloan), the beautiful beauticians' assistant in the neighboring salon, who dreams of escaping her alcoholic mother.
Across the street, Kevin and Camila Rosario (Oscar Cheda and Natalie Toro) slave away at their car service in order to send their daughter Nina (Arielle Jacobs) to Stanford, but she has folded under financial pressure and fled home, falling into the arms of dad's African-American apprentice, Bennie (Rogelio Douglas Jr.). On an infernal Independence Day eve, the block's beloved matriarch, Abuela Claudia, wins $96,000 in the lottery; the windfall could fulfill dream , or forever fracture this extended family.
I approached the production of In the Heights without any prior familiarity, knowing only its inspiring rags-to-riches story: Author Miranda created the original version as a Wesleyan University undergrad, and saw it shaped through workshop and off-Broadway stagings into a Broadway sensation.
So I went in with few preconceptions but high expectations, which were initially met. Set designer Anna Louizos' forced-perspective, multistory tenement (like Avenue Q's set on steroids) with the George Washington Bridge in the background makes a breathtaking first impression, and Howell Binkley paints it with layers of lovely summer light. I appreciated the bilingualism built into the show's DNA, from the pre-recorded curtain speech on. The upbeat score wields lyrically dense softcore rap (think Fresh Prince meets Eminem) with infectious rhythms and blistering brass borrowed from a host of Latin cultures. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler brings his So You Think You Can Dance—style to the stage, with movement that is eclectic and athletic. The cast is so exuberant that you can't help but embrace them; all of them are compelling singers and kinetic dancers.
But as caliente as many moments were (the cell-phones-in-a-blackout beat is especially brilliant), the whole ultimately left me frio. After a half-dozen spirited but inarticulate musical numbers, I noticed a pattern developing: an expository song spelling out a character's back story, climaxing in an awkwardly punctuated ending. Then a choppy transition leads into a stiff book scene, making Quiara Alegria Hudes' barely-there script screamingly obvious.
The songs don't push the story forward and neither do the protagonists; mostly they simply express established emotions over and over again. In the end, none of the plot threads are resolved in a dramatically effective way. Worse, while "make sure you remember the flavor of home" is a fine platitude if you're Dorothy in Oz, it's an insufficient solution for the serious socio-economic issues that this show invokes, only to oversimplify and sidestep. Most of the flaws, however, flow from its sophomore origins showing through the seams; a skilled director should have stitched them closed.
I still have high hopes for the remaining shows in the season — Spring Awakening (May 18-23) and, to a much lesser extent, Xanadu (April 27-May 2) and Chicago (June 15-20). Come fall, edgy and urban take a back seat to family-friendly familiarity in the 2010-2011 lineup; I know I should bitch, but maybe FTA's Ron Legler and crew have made the best financial call in a bad economy. They may fill seats on nostalgia, but West Side Story (Feb. 1-6, 2011) and to a much lesser extent Hair (June 21-26) have proven powerful documents of pop-culture, and the reception to the recent revivals implies that they are still relevant.
My new wish: If we must continue to rape treasured movies for musicals, too bad we couldn't get Mary Poppins instead of Young Frankenstein (Nov. 30-Dec. 5). But Wicked's (Feb. 23-March 27, 2011) whiplash-inducing return should make more money than I did last decade. And that's OK by me, if some of that cash helps FTA continue its plans for a community theater in downtown's Sanctuary condominiums (after a similar project planned for the nearby Paramount high-rise was nixed). Details will be reported as they develop, but I'll support anyone building an affordable downtown stage for independent artists: It's about damn firstname.lastname@example.org