Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

City Stories

July 07, 2010


I got to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-award winning musical In the Heights over the recent holiday weekend in L.A. during its current national tour. (This was the night following the casts’ appearance on the George Lopez show on TBS.) I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was certainly more than I got. Miranda has joined the touring production for many of the dates on the West Coast and he is certainly one of the show’s biggest assets. His stage presence and charm are remarkable. But In the Heights sadly takes all that charisma and squanders it in a show that is so well meaning, it almost isn’t even there.

As you may know, the musical deals with the trials and tribulations of a mostly Latin-American community in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood during one very hot summer. The characters, including Miranda’s Usnavi, struggle with a variety of socioeconomic challenges in a heart-warming fashion that reinforces familial love, hard work, and community spirit. Which are all good things, even if they aren’t the most interesting material onstage. There’s also the matter of a winning lottery ticket and how it will be used and by whom. And while the show may be filled with characters who aren’t typically found in Broadway musicals, what happens to them in this story can be seen coming from miles away. In The Heights is definitely more “Yes, We Can” than “Fight the Power.” All of this activity is set to rather chock-a-block Broadway melodies infused with Latin rhythms and a bit of rap. There is plenty of dancing as well, but the entire effect (at least as it appeared in L.A.) was decidedly old-fashioned: from the single unchanging set to the pro-forma let's-throw-a-street-party set pieces. In the Heights may also be the least visually spectacular musical to come out of New York in years. Even attempts to add a dash of contemporary edge by inserting lines about the duly reviled Arizona immigration law from earlier this year into a rap by Usnavi’s younger cousin Sonny fell flat.

But all the ingratiating crowd-pleasers aside, In the Heights never really sinks to the level of being wince-inducing. It moves along at a good pace and does manage to bring off the musical numbers both professionally and with a good level of commitment. And it does provide the opportunity to see one of the stage’s most recent new stars in what will hopefully be a career filled with far more compelling projects. In the Heights runs in L.A. at the Pantages Theater through the 25th of July.


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