You may find your toes tapping spontaneously while watching the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of In The Heights. Such is the power of the Latin infused music from composer Lin-Manuel Miranda.
It comes as no surprise then to know In The Heights burst onto the Broadway stage in 2008 taking home prizes at that year’s Tony Awards for original score and orchestrations, in addition to best musical.
More than just a toe-tapping combination of Latin and hip-hop sounds though, In The Heights also brought to stage a story featuring a population that has been woefully missing on any grand musical scale since West Side Story.
But where West Side Story dealt with racial tension, In The Heights is a much kinder and gentler show, that is bursting at its seams with optimism. And that is, surprisingly perhaps, its biggest downfall, for Quiara Alegría Hudes’ book and Miranda’s lyrics skip along with little conflict. Even in its biggest moments, like dealing with the aftermath of a New York City blackout, it becomes another overly hopeful rallying cry in the ongoing quest for that elusive American Dream. Add the idea that love and a lottery ticket are the way up and out of the neighbourhood, and the heart of this community’s story gets lost among its overly cheerful predictability.
With the bulk of this show’s strength coming courtesy of Miranda’s music it becomes an imperative that its cast can deliver in the music department and, for the most part, this production does just that. Leading the way is Luc Roderique as shop owner Usnavi who is just at home with Miranda’s rap music as he is in the more traditional Broadway tunes peppered throughout the show. Roderique even manages to sustain Usnavi’s overly optimistic outlook with a genuine believability. As Benny, Chris Sams is a delight to watch and helps build a realistic chemistry in the relationship with Kate Blackburn’s Nina, who herself has one of show’s freshest voices. Elena Juatco proves her musical worth once again, and Caleb Di Pomponio does nice work as the comedic relief.
Sharon Crandall brings wonderful vocals to the role of Abeula, but never for a moment does one believe she is the elderly grandmother and loving matriarch of the barrio. And while one has to admire the colour-blind casting that is necessary to pull off a show like this in Vancouver, there is something a little off-putting and distancing in its attempts to cast some of its characters by non-Latino actors.
With the music the star of this show, it is also crucial to have a band with the ability to maneuver its many flavours. Under the direction of Ken Cormier, the seven piece band hidden in the rafters above the action are one of this show’s biggest successes. You may very well find yourself hoping there is a lull in the lyrics just to luxuriate in this band’s sound.
Along with the music comes a wonderful mix of Latin and hip-hop dance from choreographer Lisa Stevens, and though the dance performance in the big ensemble number “The Club” doesn’t quite match the sizzle of the music, the rest of the show’s choreography is handled with skill by the ensemble work of Michael Culp, Julio Fuentes and Alexandra MacLean. Michael Antonakos also brings a particularly strong and sexy Latin dance flair to his role as the Piragua Guy.
Despite an overly optimistic tone and a predictable story that at times fizzles, the music of In The Heights is what makes this show sizzle.
In The Heights with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Directed by Bill Millerd. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville St, Vancouver) until June 7. Visit https://artsclub.com for tickets and information.