Arts Club's In the Heights is dripping with talent

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      Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. An Arts Club production at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, May 6. Continues until June 7

      Imagine West Side Story, but without the dynamic plot and unforgettable songs. You’d have a boring musical set in New York City. Voilà! In the Heights.

      In Quiara Alegría Hudes’s book, very little happens. We meet Usnavi, who runs a little bodega, selling coffee and lottery tickets to the locals in Washington Heights, a largely Dominican-American neighbourhood. He’s smitten with the lovely Vanessa, who is convinced that nobody cares about her, including her alcoholic mom. And then there’s Nina, the street’s Great Hope, who has gone off to Stanford University and come home feeling disgraced. Benny, who works for the limousine service that Nina’s dad runs, steps up to become her bashful love interest.

      For too long, these setups just sit there—and then they move, incrementally, in unsurprising directions. Act 1 is pretty much all aspiration all the time. Everybody sings about how they want to make the grade in America, and how they want to get out of the Heights. A typical lyric, sung by Nina’s father: “I will not be the reason that my family can’t succeed.”

      The musical is more a homage to a neighbourhood than an eventful story about the people in it. And that neighbourhood is so far away from Vancouver that you’ve got to wonder why we’re participating in the process of mythologizing it. The musical presents racially diverse characters, which is a saving grace, but, even then, the culture of In the Heights is decidedly different from Vancouver’s. In this production, that disconnect results in some very—well—diverse Spanish accents.

      Salsa and rap drive Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs, but, with no engaging narrative to infuse them with meaning, they just roll by in a series of empty production numbers.

      None of this is the fault of the local performers. Under Bill Millerd’s direction, this Arts Club production is dripping with talent. Toronto native Chris Sams’s Benny is so sweetly goofy who wouldn’t date him? And his singing is as effortless as his charm. As Nina, young newcomer Kate Blackburn also hits a home run in her Arts Club debut, powering out her songs in the proud tradition of Broadway belting. These two are both going to be stars.

      Pros such as Elena Juatco (Vanessa) and Catriona Murphy (Nina’s mom, Camila) are always a pleasure to watch—and listen to. And Luc Roderique does a solid job in the central role of Usnavi.

      Set designer Ted Roberts’s streetscape is detailed and handsome. And Lisa Stevens’s percussive, street-stylin’ choreography is terrific; it’s especially fun to catch the ornamentations that explode every now and then behind scenes, going off like little firecrackers. Under Ken Cormier’s direction, the band is tight, and there are horns, which is always a good thing.

      In 2008, In the Heights won four Tony Awards, including best musical, but the competition that year was less than fierce. It included Xanadu.




      May 8, 2015 at 3:01pm

      They might be talented, but how unfortunate the Arts Club Theatre Company (the largest theatre company in Western Canada) can't be bothered to make the effort to find real Puerto Rican or Spanish speaking cast members for this show.

      More frustrating

      May 10, 2015 at 6:45am

      And also, when large companies do Romeo and Juliet, even though they might be talented, they can't be bothered to make the effort to find real Italians.

      George Mosley

      May 10, 2015 at 3:34pm

      Thank you Colin Thomas, once again, for nailing it! We stuck it out to intermission but, while the material didn't stink, it did nothing to draw us back for the second act. There was, indeed, talent on and behind the stage. All the more reason to feel sad about the effort wasted on material so cliched and shallow. It's depressing to think that, given the cited acclaim and awards, this is the best that's being written for the stage these days?!


      May 10, 2015 at 5:29pm

      Watching this show was like eating salsa without the key ingredient, SPICE. Bland and flavourless.


      May 10, 2015 at 6:18pm

      Regardless of the merit of the material itself, it was refreshing to hear the story of something other than rich white folks on stage.


      May 10, 2015 at 7:51pm

      This show is great. I saw it three times in NYC and bought my tickets as soon as it was announced. Why was a show that sparkled on the NYC stage so bland on a Vancouver one?


      May 10, 2015 at 9:41pm

      The accents and portrayal of these characters are insulting, offensive and stereotypical. If Vancouver had a Latin comunity this show would be forced to close. I can't believe I wasted money as I am sick to my stomach from this show.

      Re: More frustrating

      May 11, 2015 at 11:40am

      Culture and language is integral to the story of In The Heights. It is not integral to Romeo and Juliet. Please don't dismiss a complex issue with a simplistic comparison.

      Seasoned professional

      Jun 4, 2015 at 12:57pm

      ...disappointed with the comments I'm reading on this site. The show was fantastic. Arts Club need to put up more shows like this to inspire the next generation of artists.... And, after seeing the original cast perform this show on Broadway years ago, I can officially say that Vancouver nailed it!


      Jul 11, 2015 at 9:48pm

      I saw the show on broadway and in Vancouver. Yes the lack of latin actors was noticeable. Though the one actual latino who played Kevin the father was fantastic and was glaringly left out of the review though his song is mentioned. Why would someone complain about the lack of latin actors yet not mention the one it and who had a realistic portrayal and accent? His rendition of the song made us cry too. I also think this show is for a generation younger than Mr Thomas age. He misses the point of the show completely and as he is obviously not musically trained,, the complexity and richness of the score and songs, as this is a musical not a play, is so amazing that it takes more than one listen to capture its greatness. I guess Mr Thomas was waiting for a predictable pop song to leave him humming. He praised the writing of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.. nows theres a poorly written play about boring white older people with boring white lives but Mr Thomas loved that one just fine ? Maybe because he is able to relate to the 50's male character and really he is just past his time for young exciting shows by brilliant young artist like Miranda.