Wednesday, February 8, 2012
MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW: IN THE HEIGHTS
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
08 FEB 2012
TORONTO - In Buenos Aires, we recently learned, the ubiquitous “No problem,” of contemporary English conversation is replaced by the phrase “No hay drama” — or, translated literally: “There is no drama.” Ironically, it’s a phrase that almost perfectly describes the touring production of the multiple Tony Award-winning IN THE HEIGHTS that pulled into the Toronto Centre for the Arts Tuesday for a limited run, as part of Dancap’s subscription series.
Which is not to suggest, even for a moment, that the musical celebrating contemporary street life in Washington Heights — the largely Latin American enclave on Manhattan’s northern end — is devoid of plot. If anything, Quiara Alegría Hudes’ book is a trifle heavy on that end of things, sporting not just a pair of star-crossed romances, but three businesses struggling to survive in a community in the throes of gentrification, one major lottery win and a sweet old lady with a heart condition — not to mention a major power failure thrown in for good measure.
And while, in the show’s acclaimed Broadway incarnation, director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler clearly must have discovered rich veins of drama in the tale, underlined throughout, no doubt by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Latin love-in of a score, director/choreographer Michael Balderrama has failed to stake a claim on any such mettle in the touring production touching down here.
Now, admittedly, Balderrama presumably suffered more than a spot of bad luck when he had to replace his leading man, Perry Young, on the opening night of the Toronto run — but, in theatre, these things happen, and a good director prepares crackerjack understudies. And while Jeffrey Nuñez brings understated charm to his performance as shopkeeper Usnavi, he simply lacks the necessary charisma for the role, leaving one wondering what the Spanish word for “nebbish” might be. He simply doesn’t have the stuff to carry his end of the romance with the neighbourhood hottie, played by Presilah Nuñez, and he gets scant help from a sound system that transforms his apparently impressive skills at busting hip-hop rhymes into muddied exposition that is too often all but unintelligible.
And while there’s a nice, albeit low-key romantic tension between Virginia Cavaliere (as the bright-as-a-penny Nina) and Kyle Carter (as the upwardly mobile and linguistically challenged Benny), there’s never any doubt that they’ll work things out, thanks to the clichéd performances.
Meanwhile, on the street around them, everyone complains about the heat, but few manage to sizzle. Choreography that should hit the stage piping hot, or “muy caliente”, as the Spanish say, is served up with tepid precision, while major plot points — the aforementioned lottery win, shop closings and other major life changes — are passed over with an off-handedness that borders on peremptory.
There are good performances here — Robert Ramirez’s smart-mouthed Sonny and Katherine Brady’s Carla are both small but delightful bits of work — but in the main, IN THE HEIGHTS isn’t.
Ultimately, it seems its goal is to be a slice-of-life musical, capable of taking the clichéd characters of sitcoms and bad movies and transforming them into living, breathing human beings with dreams and aspirations that ultimately transcend the supposed barriers of race and even colour. And on a certain level it succeeds in creating an imitation of life. But while good art often imitates life, if it is to succeed, it has to not only imitate life, but refine it, too.
All of which means that while “no hay drama” might be a great way to approach life in Argentina’s capital, when it comes In the Heights, “No hay drama” is a big problem indeed.