Tony-winner 'In the Heights' is overplotted, but powerhouse music, dance compensate

TAMPA — What happened when the power blew out one July Fourth weekend? That, in a way, is the story of In the Heights, which won the 2008 Tony Award for best musical.

The national tour made its debut Tuesday night at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, and it was exciting to get the first look at the attractive young cast who celebrate the largely Hispanic Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who conceived In the Heights and wrote the music and lyrics, said a few words from the stage before the performance. He has acknowledged his debt to Rent, and there are parallels between the two musicals in their mix of show tunes and pop music — rock in the case of Jonathan Larson's score for Rent, salsa and hip-hop in Miranda's score.

Skinny, likeable Kyle Beltran plays Usnavi, the Dominican bodega owner who relates much of the narrative in accessible, often witty rap. What drives In the Heights is its propulsive Latin sound, full of punchy brass and percussion, the first truly successful use of the music of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Colombia in a Broadway show, though the band was not in top form Tuesday. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler created kinetic, street-smart dance and movement for the ensemble, and they were a joy to watch, not only in big numbers like the Act 1 finale in a club when the power blackout hit, but in subtle, stylish gestures and poses.

Unfortunately, Quiara Alegria Hudes' book is predictable and sentimental. The issues are not exactly pressing. Will Nina (an affecting Arielle Jacobs), the neighborhood's pride, go back to Stanford after losing her scholarship and dropping out? Will sexy Vanessa (Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer) move to Greenwich Village?

But the overplotted story can be ignored when there's so much compelling music and dance to take in. As Benny, Nina's boyfriend, Rogelio Douglas Jr. brought a rich voice to his part in the fire escape duet Sunrise, a typically artful example of Miranda's songwriting gifts. No Me Diga, a bouncy girl group number led by salon owner Daniela (the hilarious Isabel Santiago) was a blast. Elise Santora, as Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood matriarch, sang a lovely aria to Cuba, Paciencia y Fe ("Patience and Faith'').

Where In the Heights, directed by Thomas Kail, also breaks ground is in its extensive Spanish, sprinkled throughout the dialogue and lyrics, reflecting the multicultural flavor of New York and, increasingly, the rest of the United States. It was fun to hear the large portion of Tuesday's audience who were clearly bilingual pick up on and respond to the Spanish.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

If you go

In the Heights

The musical has seven shows through Sunday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $38.50-$72.50. (813) 229-7827; tbpac.org.

Tony-winner 'In the Heights' is overplotted, but powerhouse music, dance compensate 10/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 1:17am]

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