Que Calor: "In the Heights" is Hot, Hot, Hot



Powerlessness. Blackouts as metaphor. Life in an isolated urban multiethnic community with irregular transit and limited opportunity. None of that sounds like the foundation for a Tony-winning feel-good Broadway musical, does it?

Then again, In the Heights isn't your typical Tony-winning Broadway musical.

There's a lot to love about this hip-hop-inspired street scene with its intermingling Caribbean and Puerto Rican accents. And there's a lot to digest after the last notes fade. It's interlocking stories are old fashioned romantic melodrama, but the themes are current and vital. These lighter-than-they-might-be tales of transition and struggle combine into a modern fable about urban decay, tradition, and gentrification. It's the story of New York's Washington Heights neighborhood in the 90's, as told from the perspective of corner store regulars. It's the voice of shopkeepers, shaved ice vendors, and graffiti artists. There's love in the ruins, young and old. And a sense of shared identity that even brings hustling entrepreneurs close to the vandals that plague them.  

The Hattiloo is getting really good at putting street life on stage. In the Heights' design echoes last season's excellent set work for King Hedley II. In spirit, anyway. Hedley was Philly in bad decline. From the Unisex Salon to the street-side bodega and coffee shop, this is a taste of the Heights at the end of the boom box era. Both shows really get at the essence of crumbling places at a specific moment in time.

Breezy, heartfelt performances from a tight ensemble completes the picture. While I can imagine more lively and robust productions, it's hard to imagine one more honest or appealing.   

Montanez Shepherd is especially fine as the entire neighborhood's adopted grandmother. But don't take my word for it. Watch this clip. 

The acting is solid, the dance is a hot as a New York subway station in August. But In the Heights, bittersweet poetry oozes from the details. A family owned limo service closes, and it's sign comes down. The change reveals an older style sign for a different family's car service from back in the days when the neighborhood moved to an entirely different beat. 

Good, thoughtful stuff. Catch it while it lasts. 

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