“In the Heights,” the winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical, is sometimes compared with old-fashioned musicals “Fiddler on the Roof” and “West Side Story.”
That’s not entirely a stretch, since “In the Heights” is a heart-tugging story of family ties and the immigrant experience – in this case, the Dominican-Puerto Rican-Cuban experience in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan.
But if you think, even for a moment, that “In the Heights” is an old-fashioned musical, you’ll get your ears opened from the very first number, a pure adrenaline blast of Latin rhythms and hip-hop energy.
“Literally, we all turned around and said to each other, ‘What is this? This is amazing,’ ” said Perry Young, describing the moment when he and his college-age friends first saw “In the Heights” during its 2008 Broadway run.
Four years later, he landed the part of the main character, Usnavi, in the national tour that arrives Thursday in Spokane. Yet what amazed him from the beginning, he said, was not just the music and the dancing. It was the storytelling technique that established Usnavi’s character: the art of hip-hop rhyme.
“It fused hip-hop and Latin styles of music into musical theater,” Young said.
Young, from Berkeley, Calif., is no stranger to Broadway show tunes – his mother was a dance teacher and he’s a veteran of “West Side Story,” among many other shows. Yet hip-hop, he said, “has been part of my life since I was a little boy.” In other words, “In the Heights” speaks the musical language of his generation.
Young is completely aware that older generations, let’s say the “Fiddler on the Roof” generation, might be a little put off at first. Young urges patience. This show, he has discovered, has a way of winning the skeptics over.
“Right off the bat, it can be a little startling,” said Young. “But it draws you in, and ultimately, it’s very powerful.”
For one thing, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning score ranges far beyond hip-hop. He infuses the score with salsa, Latin jazz, Latin pop and island-inflected rhythms. And there are also many numbers that might be described as good old-fashioned Broadway ballads, such as “It Won’t Be Long Now” and “When You’re Home.”
The sheer exuberance of Miranda’s big production numbers won over New York’s tough critics.
“When this musical erupts in one of its expressions of collective joy, the energy it gives off could light up the George Washington Bridge for a year or two,” said New York Times critic Charles Isherwood.
Audiences have been won over for another fundamental reason. “In the Heights” tells an emotional and universal story about the bonds of family and of home. It has several interconnected storylines, including:
• The story of Usnavi, who owns a small bodega (corner store) in Washington Heights. He worries about what is happening to his predominantly Latin neighborhood, and he dreams of returning someday to the Dominican Republic.
• The story of Nina Rosario, who has won a scholarship to Stanford University. But her college career is not turning out the way that she and her parents had hoped.
• The story of the neighborhood matriarch, Abuela Claudia, who arrived from Cuba in 1943 and remains the community’s source of wisdom and emotional strength.
Miranda weaves in other plot threads as well. Dreams are fulfilled in unexpected ways.
Miranda, who played Usnavi in the original Broadway production, is of Puerto Rican descent, but was born in New York. He became an instant celebrity in Puerto Rico when he accepted his Tony Award by delivering an acceptance speech in rap, a la Usnavi, and waving a small Puerto Rican flag.
Young said that this tour has the same creative team as the original Broadway run, which means that the sets, costumes and choreography will be virtually the same as those that wowed Young and his friends. The show will arrive with 23 cast members and seven-piece pit band.
The caliber of the dancers is particularly high. Young said that Usnavi is the only part in the show he can play, because the dance standards are too high in the other roles.
“This is completely another level of dance,” he said. And remember – he’s the son of a dance teacher.
Young brings another kind of expertise to the role – his actor’s training in diction and annunciation. That is particularly important for his rapid-fire hip-hop passages, which are key parts of the narrative.
In this show, hip-hop is a storytelling device, and one particularly well suited to the material.
“Hip-hop is essentially just poetry, just spoken word,” said Young. “ … The younger generation will be comfortable with it, because it’s speaking their language. But it does not exclude the older generation, because the story has so much heart in it.”
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