Not going above 96th Street, haggling with the super to get on rooftops, and summertime power blackouts are familiar experiences for New Yorkers. Can the touring production of In The Heights overcome geography? Don’t hold your breath, Toronto.
The 2008 Tony Award-winning musical, now on at the Toronto Centre for the Arts through February 19, depicts the lives of a group of residents in New York’s Dominican-American neighbourhood of Washington Heights. Usnavi (Perry Young) runs a bodega (in Canada-speak, that’s the fast-vanishing convenience store) and serves a variety of regulars, including Vanessa (Presilah Nunez), the sexy hairdresser who always comes in for morning coffee, her mouthy co-workers Carla (Katherine Brady) and Daniela (Tauren Hagans), Kevin (Benjamin Perez) and his wife Camila (Celina Clarich Polanco), who run the local car service, their friend and employee Benny (Kyle Carter), who becomes involved with their daughter Nina (Virginia Cavaliere) when she returns from university, and Sonny (Robert Ramirez) Usnavi’s wise-cracking cousin, who helps out around the store. The neighbourhood gets into an uproar when it’s discovered that Usnavi’s bodega has sold a winning lottery ticket, one that happens to belong to longtime ‘hood resident Abuela Claudia (Christina Aranda).
In The Heights is ambitious in its quest to examine the changing face of an immigrant community amidst financial hardship and changing demographics. Based on Quiara Alegris Hudes’ book, the story, by composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also appeared as Usnavi in the Broadway production) offers a rich kaleidoscope of experiences culled from immigrant tales and success stories, all of which are held together by the use of Latin rhythms, punctuated by heavy beats and dollops of rap and hip-hop. What made In The Heights so vibrant in New York -aside from its immediacy -was its performances and high-calibre production values.
IN THE HEIGHTS North American Tour Company
The touring show, by contrast, zaps much of the joy of Thomas Kail’s original direction, with director/choreographer Michael Balderrama’s re-staging exposing the weaknesses in the original material, and demonstrating just how tied to place the piece really is. The orchestra can play as loudly as it wants (and frequently does, alas), the performers can shout and flap their arms (some do), but the flimsy quality of the writing is reflected in a flimsy touring show, right down to the set. The original depiction of The Heights onstage translates here as small, cramped, thin. That’s not exactly inaccurate when it comes to New York living, but it separates, as opposed to enclosing, pushes away, instead of welcoming in. What’s worse, the imaginary borders of Usnavi’s bodega are ever-shifting because of clumsy character blocking, and Andy Blankenbuehler’s original Tony award-winning choreography hasn’t been accurately scaled to match a deep stage. Speaking of locale, In The Heights would be better suited to a more intimate venue with the city literally outside the door. Coming into the vast suburban drive of the Toronto Centre for the Arts, only to be confronted with a deeply urban tale that incorporates deeply urban sounds, feels disjointed and surreal and so, so wrong. Location is no fault of the show’s (to be sure, it says more about the parochial nature of Toronto theatre in 2012) but since In The Heights is being presented in such a vast space, it behoves the performers and the crew to do a better job filling it -emotionally, creatively, physically -if it hopes to make any kind of impression on Torontonians.
IN THE HEIGHTS North American Tour Company
There are a few stand-out performances that do leave an impression however, among them the magnetic Kyle Carter as Benny. Blending youthful earnestness and adult determination, Carter is eminently watchable, his rich, soulful sound frequently soaring above his co-stars and offering a heartfelt portrait of a young man at odds in his world. Christina Aranda is wonderful as Abuela Claudia; her solo reminiscing about Cuba is a knock-out, and we momentarily forget the character is perhaps little more than a cobbled collection of elderly-Latin-lady cliches. Tauren Hagans is hilarious as Daniela, using broad comic body language and a good clear singing voice to portray a young woman whose mouthy demeanor conceals a more gentle heart, while Robert Ramirez is sassy, fearless, and fierce (and fiercely observant) as the young Sonny. Jeffrey Nunez, who replaced an ailing Perry Young on opening night, tries hard and gives a noble effort, but lacks the charisma to be main man material, his Usnavi less a striking symbol of the ‘hood than a boring nice guy with small gestures and smirks that won’t reach the balconies. Overloud orchestrations oby Music Supervisor Alex Lacamoire don’t help. After two hours one feels as if one’s been hit over the head with a frying with maracas attached to the handle.
It’s such a pity In The Heights isn’t rising to its own potential greatness here, because this is just the sort of musical that’s so sorely needed in Toronto’s theatre scene. Alas, the heat of the Heights remains stifled, and caught in its own ‘hood, with the lights off, going nowhere, fast.