Review: In the Heights is a cultural stretch for Arts Club

Tony Award-winning musical set in largely Dominican-American neighbourhood of NYC’s Washington Heights

For one fleeting moment I thought, “Oh, a new, locally created musical about the Heights” — that lively stretch of East Hastings chockablock with delis, eateries, fresh produce stores, used books, a great hardware store and coffee bars galore.

But of course, the titular “Heights” is a run-down northern Manhattan neighbourhood in New York City with its predominant population of Dominican-Americans.

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With music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, In the Heights was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning four, including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Choreography. It was also nominated for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama but was beaten out by Gina Gionfriddo’s ferociously gritty Becky Shaw. Not in the same dramatic ballpark as Becky Shaw, In the Heights is a fine musical with a happy ending.

The action happens over three hot days in July in the Heights, and choreographer Lisa Stevens cranks it up with sizzling salsa and calorie-burning breakdancing. Outstanding in the “busting a move” department are Julia Harnett, Alexandra MacLean, Julio Fuentes (dance captain), Michael Culp and hot as a jalapeno pepper Elena Juatco (Vanessa).

Costume designer Carmen Alatorre cuts loose in the Fourth of July club scene with skimpy, body-clinging dresses in the red/yellow/orange palette; every wiggle gets the layers of frills shaking.

Set designer Ted Roberts puts us on a street within view of the Washington Bridge (all a-twinkle at night): a “bodega” (corner store that sells Lotto tickets), Daniela’s Salon and Rosario’s cab station. Above the storefronts are old brick tenements. The band, under the direction of Ken Cormier, sits elevated stage right behind a scrim.

The glue that sticks this together over two-and-a-half hours is composed of intertwining love stories: Usnavi (appealingly goofy Luc Roderique) and Vanessa (Elena Juatco), Benny (Chris Sams) and Nina (Kate Blackburn), Nina’s parents Kevin (Francisco Trujillo) and Camila (Caitriona Murphy), and everyone else loves old Abuela (Sharon Crandall). Daniela, the hairdresser with a heart of gold, is played by Irene Karas Loeper.

In Bill’s Notes (a Coles Notes knock-off available in the lobby and well worth a read), Bill Millerd, Arts Club artistic managing director and director of In the Heights says, “Casting the show with Vancouver-based music theatre artists was a challenge considering not only the setting for the piece but also the demands of the type of music and lyrics that Lin-Manuel has written. Not everyone can do hip hop or rap.” But the larger challenge is the paucity of Latino theatre artists in this town. The cast does its best, but it would be really fabulous to see it with a cast of Dominican-American or Puerto Rican-American singers and dancers. There’s just a little something missing here. One of my favourite songs, “Enough,” is sung by Caitriona Murphy, ostensibly — but not believably — a Puerto Rican immigrant. Murphy does a terrific job of this song, telling her husband and squabbling daughter “enough,” but we have to imagine the character, Camila Rosario, as a passionate Latino woman blazing away. It’s a stretch.

The songs, while beautifully sung, are not memorable and not every ear is tuned to catch all the words in some of the rap numbers. There are times when I wished for surtitles although I know the language being sung is English.

But In the Heights is a heartwarming story. Nina, having dropped out of Stanford, will go back to school and, with luck, she will still love Benny after she gets her BA. Usnavi and Vanessa will settle down together; Kevin and Camila will enjoy retirement; and Abuela — because she’s just so darned nice and cheery and generous with her money — will go to heaven for her reward.

It’s lively and colourful; it will try to convince you that no matter where you live — West Vancouver or the Downtown Eastside– there’s no place like home.

For more reviews, go to joledingham.ca.

In the Heights is at the Stanley until June 7. For tickets, call 604-687-1644 or go to artsclub.com.

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