A love letter: My first fight with "In the Heights"

Review: "In the Heights" dashes one critic's high hopes.

In 2008, a musical with hip-hop music, Latin flair, a touching story and a whole lot of dancing took home four Tony awards. Shortly after that, I purchased a copy of the soundtrack. It was then that my love affair with “In the Heights” began.

It’s the story of many theater lovers before me: girl (or boy) meets play. If you’re lucky, an initial obsession leads to a more reasonable appreciation for the content. Such was the case with me and Lin Manuel-Miranda’s musical. My giddy infatuation eventually blossomed into a deep life-long love. But Tuesday night at the Crouse Hinds Theater, “In the Heights” and I had our first fight.

Having never seen the show before, who am I to complain that my first time didn’t meet expectations? It’s the non-equity tour, after all, not Broadway. But it just didn’t seem the actors were performing to the best of their abilities.

The musical opens with the title number, performed by the rapping narrator Usnavi, played by an uneven Perry Young. Young seemed to always be one beat behind the music and lost his flow once or twice throughout the night. His mediocrity was matched by several other performers who couldn’t hit the high notes.

Having only the soundtrack, the original New York Times review, and a good imagination as my prior knowledge of the show, I was sorely disappointed. The biggest let-down was Quiara Alegria Hudes’ libretto. Hudes earned one of her multiple Pulitzer Prize nominations for “In the Heights.” Her book is the beautiful story of family and the pursuit of dreams, but the trite, outdated jokes highlighted by frustratingly bad acting (especially by Celina Clarich Polanco, as Camila Rosario) gave me pause.

Maybe I’m being overly critical, maybe I’m afraid that I waited too long for the experience. After all, there were some good moments. Christina Aranda gave a powerhouse performance as Abuela Claudia, the grandmother of the neighborhood. Virginia Cavaliere’s sweet, almost timid voice proved especially poignant in her later songs “Alabanza” and “Everything I Know.” And Presilah Nunez was everything I wanted from Vanessa, her strong voice matched by genuine sex appeal.

In the HeightsSo the morning after, I am using a pen (instead of a cigarette) to clear my head. Do I feel as though my expectations were met? Was my love respected?

Ultimately, the infectious, stirring music of “In the Heights” outweighs the less-than-stellar production that is touring the country right now. And maybe what I love best about this musical is that it’s not about perfection – it’s about people who make mistakes, and the family that supports them anyway.  

So my love remains. After all, it would be heartless to give up after our first fight.

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