Arts and Entertainment

REVIEW: High energy and time-bending choreography make 'In The Heights' a knockout

Perry Young (center, in red shirt) plays Usnavi in Village Theatre
Perry Young (center, in red shirt) plays Usnavi in Village Theatre's 'In The Heights.'
— image credit: Copyright Mark Kitaoka, photo property of Village Theatre

It's an odd thing to praise a musical production for its sense of economics. But when the musical in question is "In The Heights" — a hip-hop musical that, like good hip-hop, is supremely concerned with how the interaction of many moving parts form a greater whole — this is a relevant compliment to the work of Village Theatre.

The musical, written by Quiara Alegria Hudes with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, arrived prepackaged with a strong pedigree: it swept up four awards, including Best Musical, at the 2008 Tonys and snatched the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

"Heights" eschewed a large-looming central conflict for a singular character in favor of many small, interconnected ones affecting an entire community. In brief, the plot concerns the dreams and financial obstacles of the residents on a single corner of the heavily Dominican-American Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan.

Nina Rosario (played in the Village production by Tanesha Ross) is a big fish in a little pond who finds herself at a crossroads after dropping out of Stanford. Benny (Kyle Robert Carter) is a hard worker at the Rosario family's limo business who wants to stand out and eventually strike out on his own — but he's kept at arm's length as a "non-Latino" by Nina's father Kevin (Jose Gonzales). Comely hairdresser Vanessa (Naomi Morgan) wants to escape her alcoholic mother, but can't swing the good credit check to get an apartment outside Washington Heights. a mysterious winning lottery ticket that tickles an entire community's curiosity. She is admired from a distance by Usnavi (Perry Young), the beleaguered-but-generous owner of the corner bodega, who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic.

Any one element might have been fleshed out into its own story, for better or for worse (One subplot, concerning a mysterious winning lottery ticket, could have easily become the deus ex machina that toppled this story into a Dickensianly saccharine ending).

Instead, Hudes judiciously pruned each branch to allow a whole tree to flourish. Nina can return to college — at a cost to others. Vanessa can be helped into her dream apartment — if she can also help herself. The financial windfall from the lottery ticket is enough to bring upward mobility to its beneficiary — but not enough to bring permanent security. This is a story that has a sense of its own economy. There are no heroes or villains — just sympathetic characters whose decisions can't help but affect their neighbors.

In that spirit, and in the hands of Director Eric Ankrim (last seen starring in Village Original "The Tutor"), what we have on our hands is one of the most living, breathing Village productions in recent memory.

It may seem a trifling detail, but enough can't be said about the masterful use of the eight-person ensemble cast in recreating the constant vibrance and motion of everyday urban life. Too often, ensemble players are the suburban Baby Boom children of the theater world: Readily trotted out in front of guests to salvage a dull dinner party, then pushed out to the backyard when the grownups find a new thread of conversation.

(This is a phenomenon true even for beloved heavy hitters like "Les Miserables." Most productions can't find enough townspeople in the world to sufficiently ouster Fantine from a textile factory or watch Jean Valjean save a man from a runaway cart. But the second anyone dreams a dream, the entire population of France decides to go summer in Montauk.)

The principal players are impressively put to work themselves. Young and Carter especially stand out in their portrayal of sympathetic regular Joes with lofty ambitions. They are also, along with Justin Huertas, the actors most called upon to perform the production's hip-hop numbers. The rat-a-tat back and forth between the three is equal parts funny, energetic and astounding.

The best moments of the show are when the principals and ensemble are brought together. True to the reality of life in a city, the principal actors of "Heights" rarely have a moment of intimacy or self revelation in which they aren't surrounded by their soft-spoken neighbors.

And when the ensemble is deployed around a lead vocalist to do what they do best… golly gee whiz, this show contains truly complex choreography that results in literally time-bending sequences. In two numbers in particular, the dance slows to a crawl as Young hits lightspeed with his rhymes.

It is, perhaps, one of the most entertaining portrayals of Einstein's theory of relativity to be used in musical theater.

 

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