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.