Watching In the Heights, the Tony-Award winning musical at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company through June 16, I came to realize it’s not all that different from wandering through the Point neighborhood of Salem.
Composer-Lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up in Washington Heights, the once Irish now Dominican neighborhood on the far northern tip of Manhattan. It’s a bit like that once French-Canadian now Dominican neighborhood on the fringe of Salem.
As a student at Wesleyan University he was inspired to write a musical that captured the diversity of the sounds and lifestyles he encountered while walking the streets of his childhood — hip-hop blasting from a car stereo, bachata wafting from a fire escape – and rented the school’s performance space for a weekend to stage his dream. That sophomore project eventually made its way to a celebrated Broadway run.
Squarely within the musical theatre idiom, In the Heights draws on the diverse sounds of an urban, ethnic neighborhood. There are big dance numbers, angsty ballads, and recitatives aplenty. But also, rap, conversational Spanish, and break dancing. This is not West Side Story – where swarthy Puerto Ricans are co-opted and stereotyped to embody a knife-wielding, urban Romeo and Juliet. Rather, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and African Americans have individualized and colorful struggles and aspirations.
The Heights neighborhood might derive its name most obviously from its geographic remoteness, but the name also connotes that this is a place to dream: of a new life in America for one generation, or a new life outside the barrio for the next. Nearly everyone in the Heights (in the Point?) is living a dream, planning an escape, or feeling stuck.
The thing that was obviously stuck at the performance I attended was the light board. While there is at least one scripted black-out, I experienced at least three, and watched several scenes under the unforgiving house lights. I suspect this technical difficulty has already been rectified and indeed might have had something to do with the Boston Theatre Marathon taking place next door. I fear, though, that the out-of-balance sound mixing is a chronic difficulty. I overheard a couple women of a certain age complaining at intermission that they couldn’t hear a word sung over the live combo.
I was struggling to hear too, but had attributed it largely to a young cast who might have been more comfortable dancing, rapping or speaking Spanish than hitting the high notes. I couldn’t help but think how many of these Boston Conservatory seniors might have been more comfortable with Miranda’s sophomore version than the Broadway behemoth In the Heights has grown to be.
Nevertheless, there’s plenty here to pull our emotional string. I laughed and cried.
Carolyn Saxon as Abuela Claudia creates an astonishing wall of sound as she reminisces about her Cuban childhood. Diego Klock-Perez raps protagonist Usnavi into everyone’s heart. And Santina Umbach as do-gooder Nina charmingly embodies what happens when we painfully outgrow the dreams others can make for us.
This Boston Regional Theatre Premiere of In the Heights might lack the professional finesse of its Broadway predecessor, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good, dreamy time.
In the Heights
at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St, Boston
through June 16
Tickets start at $25