Life explodes off the stage at Hobby Center. It travels through the house like an atomic blast; it blows back our hair and lifts us out of our seats. You feel it before the show even begins, when the voices of the actors doing their preshow warmup yell out exuberantly from backstage. We can tell we're in for a great show. This is Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony award-winning In the Heights, and the Broadway musical doesn't get any more exciting. This salsa-induced lifeforce has enough energy to light up countless Houstons.
Set in the exotic wonderland of New York City's Latin barrio around Manhattan's 183rd Street, the musical offers a glimpse of lives rarely examined onstage. The music, too, all hot and sweet with infectious rhythms and hip-hop phrasing, is something we're not used to onstage, either, and it makes the show fresh and new. The drab book by Quiara Alegría Hudes doesn't match the magic of the music, however, or the jazzy performers, or the gold-standard quality of the production. It's flat and predictable in a "musical" way, and we wouldn't be at all surprised to find a Flower Drum Song girl kicking up her Sino-American heels as she makes her way to the subway. Characters with dreams of getting out of where they are populate any number of shows, and even in this somewhat foreign territory, which overlooks and is loomed down upon by the George Washington Bridge, we can predict what's going to happen. Even the conflicts are somewhat sweet. The characters face routine problems without much punch to them — will the hero go to his dreamland of Santo Domingo? Will the neighborhood smart girl face her parents and confess that she's dropped out of Stanford? Oh, no, the hairdressing salon has got to move to the lower-rent Bronx! The power's off for a night!
This softness gives the show an old-fashioned edge, a nudge into the safety of audience-friendly. While the characters dance about, all sexy and het up, we know everything's going to turn out all right because we've seen this script so many times before. You might think this is a problem the show couldn't possibly survive, but it thrives on it. The perfunctory drama opens up the play and lets it breathe, or in this case, dance. In the Heights is the most moving of musicals. It never stops.
Our hero Usnavi (Kyle Beltran) — and how he got his name is the show's biggest laugh — runs the corner bodega, dispensing café con leche as if it's the neighborhood's lifeblood. He raps his way throughout the show with such twinkling glee that he's irresistible. Across the street is the car service run by upright Kevin and strong-willed wife Camila (Daniel Bolero and Natalie Toro). They need a loan to pay for daughter Nina's college. Nina (Arielle Jacobs), a symbol around the barrio of what freedom can be, has dropped out, finding she was unprepared for the strenuous academic life. Next door to Usnavi is the hair salon, run by tough yet tender Daniela (Isabel Santiago). Beautiful, sexy Vanessa (Sabrina Sloan) works there, and is Usnavi's secret passion. He never can get up the courage to ask her out, even with the sharp tutelage of his younger, hipper cousin Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett). Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.), the only black guy in this world of Latinos, works for Kevin and is in love with Nina, but their Romeo/Juliet relationship is a parental and societal no-no. Tying up the neighborhood with grandmotherly forgiveness is Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora), Usnavi's guardian, who is the link to all their pasts. Her tender anthem, "Paciencia y Fe" (Patience and Faith), sums up her abiding attitude. Weaving throughout the neighborhood, usually with a boom box pressed to his ear, is Graffiti Pete (Jose-Luis Lopez), a shadowy, sexy figure on the prowl. Up to no good? Maybe, maybe not.
The neighborhood is kept in perpetual motion by choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who won a Tony for his marvelous nonstop work. It's the key to Heights's height. We haven't seen this much dancing since the last rep of Houston Ballet, and it's an eyeful. These folks just don't walk down the street, they saunter, scamper, twist and bob, glide like oil. It's summer in the city and it's hot uptown. There's seduction in the heat. You'll need a fan after the show, trust me.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events