The original off-Broadway (and eventually Broadway) production of In The Heights is a much better show than what I saw at the Keller during opening night. If there was ever a show that clearly demonstrated the acoustic limitations and the issues of bringing a show on the road it was In The Heights. Set in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York, In The Heights takes a very conventional musical structure and infuses it with an eclectic mix of latin music, culture and dance. The core of the story is a Dominican named Usnavi, raised by a surrogate grandmother in the neighborhood, who struggles to run a small, often broken-down convenience store. Usnavi is surrounded by an cast of characters all dealing with the gentrification of the neighborhood and the struggle between planting roots or sprouting wings and finding a better life somewhere else. Thematically and musically there are a lot of notes lifted from Rent, with characters at the apex of dealing with their identity. This is no accident as many of the producers also worked on Rent.
What makes In The Heights stand out is Usnavi. His role is almost entirely sung in lyrical rap. In the hands of show creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, the role is simply magical. It's Usnavi who is the true narrator of the show and it's his intermingled rap which ties the whole show together. For the touring company, Usnavi is played by Joseph Morales who completely lacks any of the spark or magic of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Morales plays Usnavi way too laid back and the result is that he fades into the background of the show rather than leads it. Without that structure the show doesn't hold together. It doesn't help that many of the other roles are also horribly miscast. The roles of Kevin and Camilla Rosario, two very core characters to the show, were both cast by performers who seemed deeply out of synch in their roles. Also Arielle Jacobs, who plays Nina, never seemed to be able to fill the huge cavernous space of the Keller. She often got lost in the shuffle which is awful for a role that should be a stand out. The only two performers who really seemed to hit their groove were Chris Chatman who plays Sonny, Usnavi's younger cousin, and Lexi Lawson, who plays Vanesssa, Usnavi's love interest. Both Chatman and Lawson are able to deal with the tour's staging, play well to the big room, and seem tapped into the spark of the show.
Unfortunately it wouldn't matter if everyone on stage was pitch perfect, the Keller simply isn't suited to handle a show where actually hearing the lyrics in an ensemble-based musical is important. Most of the two and a half hour performance of In The Heights is a auditory mess. The apex scene of the first act takes place in a night club with the power out. In the Broadway performance it's a fantastic scene. Here at the Keller you simply can't pick out all the musical pieces and they all just muddle together into noise.
It's a real shame too, as In The Heights is a remarkably charming and emotionally honest musical. In an era where theater is is saturated with movie adaptations and spins on popular themes, this story of the struggle that happens in a changing neighborhood is genuine and unique. As I watched In The Heights at the Keller I struggled to see that magical, Tony award winning musical. Unfortunately it isn't there. Perhaps this show isn't really meant for the road. Without Lin-Manuel Miranda as Usnavi and without the intimacy that a smaller theater provides, In The Heights just doesn't work . As much as I'd love to recommend seeing this fantastic show at the Keller, I can't.
Portland deserves a better venue for live theater than the Keller. Maybe someday some philanthropist will step up to the plate, gut the Keller and start over, or perhaps build a performance space where real live theater can be experienced and enjoyed. Until then this is what we've got and having this tour of In The Heights at the Keller is perhaps marginally better than not having it at all.
In The Heights in Portland from Oct 19-24, 2010 at the Keller Auditorium. Tickets $36.95-$79.95
If you go, take advantage of this offer: *SAVE 40% on tickets for the Wed., Thu. & Fri. performances*
Available in all price levels except the lowest. Offer available online only & valid NOW through Fri. 10/22/10 at 12PM.
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