Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 6, 2010

In the Heights

The Bushnell, Hartford
through January 10, 2010
by Shera Cohen

While the title of "In the Heights" refers to New York's Washington Heights neighborhood, this is a musical that's high on life, dreams, challenges, and changes. The story may be universal for all eras, yet this is very much a contemporary show evidenced particularly by the multi-racial cast, songs that toss English and Spanish lyrics back and forth, and atypical choreography unlike any that Rodgers & Hammerstein, Mel Brooks, or the Disney staff could imagine.

First to be noticed is the set. Wow! Against the backdrop of the Washington Bridge are floor to ceiling tenements, quite real with cracks to see through windows, doors, and walls. Storefronts create the ground level, where most of the action takes place. Second noticed is Kyle Beltran as Usnavi (leading role) spouting a rap song about his life and community. This reviewer wasn't the only audience member to worry that the entire play would be rap, hip-hop, and generally not understood by anyone over age 25. Any reservation did not last long, as every word of Beltran's song was not only distinct, but carried the plotline forward. While hip-hoppers jumped and jived all over the stage, this was true to their characters. Twentysomethings are not going to waltz or do precision can-can.

The dialogue is minimal, as the songs flow one after each other, with each better and more rousing that the last. There is the usual showstopper - "$96,000" - surprisingly followed by four more showstoppers. It is hard to keep up with and equally hard to stop clapping. Each actor is given his/her moment in the sun. Those in the roles of Benny, Nina, Carla, Sonny and Nina instantly become individuals to like. Beltran's Usnavi is so charming and naïve that it's hard to resist the temptation to take him home as a pet.

Some of the plot of Act II is a bit disjointed, but minimally noticed against constant dancing that comes from nowhere and is contagious, the clever lighting, a pit band to beat the best of them, and one of the best touring companies to reach Hartford and the U.S.A.