At some point each semester, I posit to my students that there is no such thing as a perfect musical. I then challenge them to name one that they think is perfect, and we discuss. We can usually find a flaw in almost any show, whether it's My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, or even Gypsy.
One show that came up in our discussion this past fall was In the Heights. I think that the student who proposed the show thought that she had stumped the band, as it were. Instead, I said, "Oh, honey, where do I start?"
When I first saw In the Heights Off-Broadway, I found it a well-intentioned cartoon, full of unconvincingly noble characters, manufactured complications, and pat resolutions. (Read my Off-Broadway review.) Before the show moved to the Richard Rodgers Theater, the production staff made some fairly significant changes, and when I saw the show again on Broadway, I found myself genuinely enjoying the show, caught up in the sheer energy of the proceedings. (Read my Broadway review.)
After seeing the national tour of In the Heights, which plays through January 24th at Boston's Opera House, my view of the show has shifted a bit closer to my original reaction. There must have been something about the Broadway production that momentarily blinded me to the show's flaws, which are numerous. There's no question that In the Heights has its heart in the right place, and that Lin-Manuel Miranda has created a tuneful and vivacious score for the show. And director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler have crafted no fewer than three stunning set pieces for the show: "96,000," "The Club/Blackout," and the fun but superfluous "Carnaval Del Barrio." All are exceedingly well-staged, masterfully weaving in the various stories and characters.
But In the Heights is still -- you should pardon the expression -- a whitewashed version of Washington Heights reality. The show is rarely dull, often engaging, but overly earnest, and, despite the Salsa beat and pop-and-lock dance moves, a bit timeworn and predictable.
Moreover, the tour performers can't hold a candle to the original Broadway cast. Yes, comparisons are odious and unfair. But there wasn't a single person on stage at the Opera House last night who had the stage presence, the likability, or the vocal talent of his or her Broadway counterpart. I brought one of my students with me to the show last night, a young woman who was very enamored of the Broadway production, and the first words out of her mouth at intermission were something to the effect of, "Wow, this totally doesn't work unless you have the right people."
Of course, most people won't be in the position of having seen the original Broadway cast, as my student and I had. And for someone who's never seen the show before, the tour cast is certainly professional. In the Heights, while flawed, is an engaging night at the theater, full of charm and warmth, and a lot of really kick-ass dancing. But, although the show won the Tony Award, it was not IMHO the best musical of the 2007-2008 season. Anyone interested in seeing two arguably better shows can rent or buy the recently released DVD of Passing Strange, or check out the national tour of Xanadu. Two radically different shows, to be sure, but each in its way superior to In the Heights.
NOTE: New Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations require bloggers to disclose when they accept anything of material value related to their blog posts. I received complimentary press tickets to this performance of In the Heights.