Review: Arts Club’s “In The Heights”
Broadway has become an increasingly interesting scene in recent years. The type of musical fare making it big– Book Of Mormon, Spring Awakening, Kinky Boots– has shown a diverse, humourous-minded audience willing to move on from the earlier, quasi-outdated forms of past works. Out of the most recent recipients of the Best Musical Tony Award, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ In The Heights (2009) has seen one of the smaller international interests, but Arts Club’s Stanley Theatre Season 51 closer tried the work on for size.
Throughout Heights‘ two hour plus run time, little happens, but this is not a musical about big, sweeping story lines. Instead, Heights goes for the “week in the life” approach, letting the characters’ lives weave in and out. This is a story about a small urban neighbourhood and its inhabitants, letting the employees and residents of one small strip of space drive the narrative bus.
Naturally, this just so happens to be a coincidentally big week in the heights: Corner store clerk Usnavi has sold a winning lottery ticket to a mystery customer, his neighbouring hair salon is closing shop to move to a new ‘hood, and prodigal daughter Nina has returned to her parents’ automotive shop not that her university scholarship has been cut off.
Like any good musical, romance is at the center of the piece, with love fluttering around the neighbourhood like a plastic bag in the wind. On top of romantic love, though, the heart of the whole ‘hood seems to be Abeula, an elderly motherly figure who just so happens to know everyone’s business but have their best interests in mind.
As Heights trudges through, the plot gets fairly predictable and doesn’t offer a lot of hearty layers, but it makes up for this in entertainment value, with top-notch singing and dancing. The show spins the Broadway archetype on its head by infusing more interesting, updated entertainment forms like hip-hop lyrics and Latin dance. Usnavi is the district’s resident Macklemore, spitting rhymes about his interest in one of the hairdressers, Vanessa.
Heights could easily cut out half a dozen musical numbers and be a much tighter production, but the point here is likely the same one that made Boyhood a hit at the box offices: its slow-moving nature is supposed to be a refreshing breath of fresh air from the big dramatics and fantasy presently taking the reigns of entertainment’s focal point. Everything that happens in In The Heights is entirely possible, and that makes you invest in its characters that much more.
The dialed-down tone of Heights also allows for its players to work some magic and steal the show with their larger than life performances. Vanessa (Elena Juatco) belts out her songs with conviction and power, sending chills through the audience. Forming a trio of hairdresser divas with gal pals Daniella and Carla, the group make for some brilliant, clever comedy that adds the perfect juxtaposition to the show when tragedy hits the heights in the second act.
It’s pleasant to see a show that is much more focused on its talent and its themes than big, shocking production for once. But that said, everything that exists within Heights‘ universe is completely relevant and themed to the show. If you’re going to do anything at all, do it well, in Arts Club’s usual fashion.
Main image: The cast of Arts Club’s production of In The Heights. Photo by David Cooper.