Friday, March 2, 2012

In the Heights
It had rap, hip hop, a hoity toity character who's favourite stance was hands on hips, a non-equity cast, and I liked it!  Honestly I know very little about equity other than assuming equity = good quality.  I need not have been worried.  The voices blew me away, the dancing to my untrained eye was top notch, the character of Vanessa could have had a bit more dimension, as the hands on hips routine got old after a while, but these things in no way diminished the performance aspect or emotional involvement on my part.

Way back on February 9 (hence why this review is shorter than usual, I don't remember details) I saw In the Heights at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.  It was a last minute decision to go and I only knew that the show had won some Tony awards (including the biggie of Best Musical in 2008) and the brief summary that was on the website.  What I couldn't understand was that the final tour date had happened almost a year ago, which I suppose indicated the Toronto production was not the original post Broadway tour.  But really it didn't matter.

The set was a street in Washington Heights, New York with the Brooklyn Bridge (ok, I'm guessing, but a bridge none the less) in the background, brownstone type buildings complete with balconies (important for the Romeo and Juliet type scene at sunrise, although with a happier ending) and businesses on the ground floor.  There wasn't a large open stage area, but the cast is rather small (12 main characters and a few additional ensemble players) and they made the most of the space they had.
The plot is about family and home.  The creator Lin-Manuel Miranda based the opening on "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof and considers home the main theme (read more here).  While the characters are immigrants from various places and Spanish peppers the lyrics and dialogue they suck you into their lives with aspects easily reflected, if not in your own, then in the lives of those around you.  Subject matter includes parents wanting what's best for their children, children worried about living up to expectations of themselves and others, racial tensions, gossip, wanting to escape, realizing you're home, love (what's a musical without romance?), having courage to make changes, and a caring Grandmother figure who oversees it all and dispenses words of wisdom.

Characters Benny, Nina, and Usnavi
At the performance I saw (hopefully I'm getting these right they listed performer replacements too quickly for me to catch at the top of the show) Robert Ramirez played the roll of Usnavi, the narrator and owner of a bodega; Virginia Cavaliere was Nina, the daughter of Kevin and Camila who own Rosario's a taxi and limousine service, who's just returned for the summer from Stanford; and Kyle Carter as Benny, an employee at Rosario's who likes Nina.  The hip hop/rap style opening "In the Heights" by Usnavi describing life was understandable (which I automatically assume all rap isn't) and had quite witty rhyming at times.  Nina's soliloquy type "Breathe" took my breath away.  The actress has a beautiful voice and I hope makes it big in the future.  Benny's song "Benny's Dispatch" talking to the drivers on the road and fighting with the Spanish/English language barrier was funny.  It has a line "honk your horn" that is stuck in my head, for no good reason except I like the associated incredibly simple melody even though there's nothing special about it.

I was disappointed the program didn't list the songs or mention the band.  It's always great to take a peek into the pit at intermission.  This one might have had about 5 people: the conductor who also played keyboards, a wind player with saxes, a flute and clarinet all around him.  another keyboardist, brass player and guitars/bass.  There are clips here of some of the songs which are bouncy or heartfelt and fit into the storyline moments so well.

Here's to last minute decisions turn out to be fun evenings, cheers!

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