Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In The Heights, PlayhouseSquare

(Kyle Beltran as Usnavi)

In the early moments of this urban musical, the young man who runs the family bodega mentions that his mostly Dominican clientele prefers their cafĂ© de leche on the sweet side. And that’s how In The Heights now at PlayhouseSquare is served. Even though a lot of the dance moves look badass, it’s a show with such a milky softness and a sugary glaze that it makes The Sound of Music look raw and hard-edged.

Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music and lyrics, the show revolves around three storefront businesses in New York City’s Washington Heights hood. The bodega is run by 20-something Usnavi, a car service is operated by middle-aged Kevin and Camila Rosario, and Daniela’s hair salon is where she and her sassy stylists Vanessa and Carla hold court daily.

But the characters play second fiddle to the music and dancing, which virtually never stops and which, at its best, feels like a cresting wave that just carries you along, giddy in its own confidence. For example, the rap singing in the opening title song and a bit later in “96,000,” is so damn pneumatic and insistent it grabs hold and doesn’t let go.

As for the folks mentioned, they all have their dreams. Particularly Usnavi, who longs to return to the Dominican Republic with his grandmother Claudia. Meanwhile, the Rosarios beam with pride about their daughter Nina, who is a freshman at Stanford. But when they find out that Nina had dropped out some months before, due to financial difficulties, they are pretty sad (as sad as anyone gets in this upbeat evening).

The major turning point is when Usnavi (the origin of his name is hilarious, and will go unmentioned here) discovers that he’s sold a lottery ticket worth $96K. This sets everyone’s dreams on high, especially Benny (a tough yet tender Rogelio Douglas, Jr.)—a young African-American who works for the Rosario’s and is smitten by their daughter Nina.

As you may have guessed by now, all these dreams have a way of working out in the end, even if it’s not in the way one might have predicted. For instance, the Rosario's uneasiness with their daughter's cross-cultural hookup flitters away, as do most of the slight frictions that arise.

Along the way, there are some slower ballads that struggle for a musical foothold, but the good news is there’s always some more hip-hop gold waiting right around the corner: Graffiti Pete (Jose Luis-Lopez) boasts about his love life in one toe-tapping riff: “I got more ho’s than the phone book in Tokyo.”

In the role of Usnavi, Kyle Beltran raps with precision and has a lean and innocent look that adds a layer of unexpected vulnerability. Playing his younger cousin Sonny, Shaun Taylor-Corbett is an audience favorite as he cajoles his way into everyone’s good graces. As for Sabrina Sloan (Vanessa) and Isabel Santiago (Daniela), they show off their strong voices and fill their tight outfits quite admirably.

The book by Quiara Alegria Hudes is serviceable enough, but some of the dialog scenes feel slow and clumsily acted, particularly by Daniel Bolero (Kevin) and Arielle Jacobs (Nina).

Thus, it’s a good thing that music rules the day. In The Heights may not leave you with tunes ringing in your head, but you may have a slight windburn from the unstoppable spirit generated on the Palace Theatre stage.

In The Heights

Through February 21 at the

Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare,

1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

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