In the Heights Is Weak on Plot, Strong on Banalities
Build your own dreams, or someone will hire you to build theirs. A negative mind will never give you a positive life. Let the past make you better, not bitter. Every day is a second chance. If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door.
Pithy inspirational memes such as these are the squishy-sweet stuff of Facebook feeds. And Pinterest and Tumblr, where people compile entire pages of them, apparently for kicks. Did you know that life is short—what?—and there's no time to leave important words unsaid?
Including these: The musical In the Heights, now running at the Chance Theater, is essentially a two-and-a-half-hour gangbang of pithiness. It tells us that Home Is Where the Heart Is, that Love Makes a Family, to Never Forget Where You Come From, and that Your Wealth Is Where Your Friends Are.
It's so eye-rollingly earnest you'll want to punch it in the face. Or at least playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Somehow, In the Heights managed to snag a Best Musical Tony award in 2008, beating out the vastly more compelling and truthful Passing Strange and the atrocious movies-turned-musicals Crybaby and Xanadu. (That those last two were even nominated shrieks decibels about the modern state of musical theater.) The Pulitzer Prize committee even nominated Heights in the drama category that same year.
But those mighty accolades can't hide the failings of Heights' thin story lines. Set in the struggling, largely Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City over a blisteringly hot Independence Day weekend, it opens with long slice-of-life introductions of each major character. We meet Nina, home from her first year at Stanford, who must break the horrible news to her sure-to-be-disappointed parents that she has lost her scholarship because of crappy grades and dried-up cash flow. Expensive-ass Stanford? What—the local community college wasn't good enough?
Nina's parents own a struggling cab company, where Benny, a dispatcher, has eyes for Nina (spoiler alert: he'll eventually bone her). But Benny, being black and all, is the wrong color for Nina's loud, controlling racist pop.
Then there's Usnavi, who runs the small, struggling market he inherited from his dead parents. He dreams of someday moving to the Dominican Republic, where he was born, but the pull of hottie salon worker Vanessa keeps him from pulling the trigger. Vanessa, for her part, dreams of moving out of the Heights and into some nicer digs, but saving up is—together, now—a struggle.
So, yes, there's plenty of dreaming and struggling, ground that oodles of productions have danced across before, particularly Rent, which Heights borrows heavily from—more so than the classic West Side Story, which lazy critics have insultingly compared Heights with, but the only real similarity is that both have singing, dancing Latino characters. Clearly, the Great White Way could stand to be a lot less pale.
But that's the faintest praise I can give the story. Very little rings true or authentic. Miranda, who conceived the musical as a 19-year-old college sophomore and based it largely on the sights and rhythms of his Washington Heights-adjacent Inwood neighborhood, didn't really have the kind of life experiences at the time to create characters in whom audiences could make emotional investments. That weakness is cemented when, laughably, a key character actually wins the goddamn lottery, and everyone's problems seem to be miraculously solved—you know, just like in real life. Most playwrights, even beginning ones, would at this point incorporate some type of conflict in the script involving the $96,000 haul, but Miranda never does. Heights, as he states, is "set in the real world that doesn't feel the need to include the negative [stereotypes of] drugs, gangs and violence." That may be commendable thinking, but his approach makes this decidedly gritty, graffiti-spritzed, chaotic community seem about as rough as Sesame Street.
Director Oanh Nguyen's cast, however, shines, despite the material. As Usnavi, Joshua Lopez nails the technical aspects of a role that requires him to sing, rap and dance in a range of styles that stretch from salsa to hip-hop to Latin funk, and the rest of the ensemble are terrific show people. You could even call them inspiring.
Which reminds me of something I saw this morning on Facebook: Life's a stage, and you only get one performance. Make it a good one. Or, in the case of this review, opinions are like assholes—everyone has one.
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