It’s a Beautiful Day in the Barrio

Like a lot of theater fans, I got hooked on the late Canadian TV show Slings and Arrows, a thinly veiled parody of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival involving some of the same people who created The Drowsy Chaperone. One problematic consequence is that any new urban musical inevitably reminds me of the ridiculously over-the-top East Hastings: The Musical shown on that series.

National Touring Company. Photo by Joan Marcus

I won’t say that never came to mind when I went to see the touring production of In the Heights playing the Curran Theatre as part of SHN’s Best of Broadway series, but the association was refreshingly fleeting.

Winner of the 2008 Tony Award for best musical, this ode to the largely Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood on the north end of Manhattan is refreshing in a lot of ways. With elements of hip-hop and salsa accenting what are still largely Broadway-style numbers, the songs are much more enjoyable than a lot of the meandering, melody-less stuff you get in a lot of new musicals. They seem awfully catchy in the moment, even if they’re pretty forgettable once it’s all over and done with.

Seeing Guys and Dolls again this weekend served as an interesting contrast, because hooboy do those songs get stuck in your head. It doesn’t help that it’s often hard to parse the lyrics in In the Heights, but there are plenty of propulsive numbers by by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who conceived the show and originally starred as Usnavi) such as an amusing rap about winning the lottery and a Latin-tinged beauty parlor gossip number, greatly abetted by Andy Blankenbuehler’s dynamic choreography.

Anna Louizos’s set is a knockout, setting the scene of tightly packed storefronts with apartments above and nicely executed forced perspective of the bridge stretching away behind them, all beautifully illuminated by Howell Binkley’s credible daylight and streetlights

With direction by original Broadway helmer Thomas Kail, the touring cast has none of the original stars. But it’s really an ensemble show, and the ensemble assembled here does a great job with it. Kyle Beltran is immensely likeable as young Dominican American shopkeeper Usnavi, a name that’s hard to parse or remember until he explains how he got it, and then it’s suddenly unforgettable. He exudes casual sincerity, and there’s an appealing air of ease about his syncopated rapping stylee.

Usnavi has a crush on disgruntled local hottie Vanessa, who works at the salon next door and can’t wait to get the hell out of the barrio and never come back. Benny is in love with his boss’s daughter Nina, whom he’s known since childhood. Nina’s come home from her first year at Stanford feeling utterly defeated, ducking all the neighborhood pride about her being the first in her family to go to college because she doesn’t know how to tell people she fell behind in her grades, lost her scholarship, and dropped out because she couldn’t afford it on her own.

Rogelio Douglas Jr. plays Benny with infectious exuberance, from his excitement at getting his first chance to handle dispatch for the car and limousine service owned by Nina’s parents to the glow he gets when he sees her again. Arielle Jacobs has bright ingenue appeal as Nina, literally the girl next door, and her budding romance with Benny is awfully sweet, running into the predictable pitfall of her father absolutely forbidding it. Sabrina Sloan has a sultry but forbidding air as the moody Vanessa, and Shawn Taylor-Corbett is hilarious as Usnavi’s cousin Sonny, who tries so hard to be a player when he’s really just a nice kid. Isabel Santiago and Genny Lis Padilla make a good comic team as gossipy salon owner Daniela and ditzy stylist Carla, and Jose-Luis Lopez is also quite funny in the small role of Graffiti Pete, whom my wife called the “Fiddler on the Roof figure” of In the Heights.

Although obviously playing a character much older than she is, Elisa Santora makes a likeable granny of the neighborhood as saintly Abuela Claudia, who sits on her stoop watching over everyone when she’s not upstairs making them sandwiches. Natalie Toro is mostly wooden as Nina’s mom Camila, but Daniel Bolero is particularly touching as dad Kevin in his musical lament about feeling useless, having done everything he could to give his daughter more opportunities than he had and finding it still isn’t enough.

The script by Quiara Alegría Hudes isn’t long on plot, but has enough hilarious lines in it to take it a long way (and obviously the show’s come a long way already). The winning lottery ticket finds its way into the plot somehow, as does a sudden summer blackout and several soapily dramatic life changes. People talk so much about getting out of the barrio that it starts to look like by the end of the play there’ll be no one left in the Heights except Graffiti Pete and the Piragua Guy. It seems like it should be called Out of the Heights. But that would be a pretty sad statement about the old neighborhood and hardly the stuff of which hit musicals are made. In the end it’s just another feel-good musical, but  it sure does sound better in Spanglish.

In the Heights
Through June 13
Curran Theatre
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #55 of 2010, attended May 12.

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