The curtain rises, the orchestra’s Latin rhythms begin and as the massive urban set is revealed one senses something special is about to unfold, and it does. “In the Heights” does not disappoint. This energizing musical takes its audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions that will leave many wanting to get back in line to ride again and again. You will laugh, cry and dance in your seat, often all at the same time. The performance grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go, nor do you want it to.
While you may not have heard about this highly acclaimed Tony & Grammy Award winning bilingual musical, by Cinco de Mayo it promises to be the talk of all of Denver. Universal Pictures recently announced that the show will be made into a motion picture directed by Kenny Ortega of “High School Musical” and more recently, Michael Jackson’s “This is It.” Many top Latino recording artists and actors are expected to take part, but the film’s star will be the play’s music and lyrics writer Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“In the Heights” has been referred to as one of those rare occurrences that come along once in a generation. What “West Side Story” was to the boomer era, “In the Heights” is to today’s X, Y and Millennial generation. But unlike its predecessor of more than 50 years ago, there are no gangs or killings. It is the story of the pursuit of the American dream, of young love and of tradition in an ever changing and challenging society.
The story is based on a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Like many college students Nina has returned home for summer break, only she is hiding a devastating secret from her very proud father. She is the first in the family to make it into a top university. Her father, Kevin, has sacrificed nearly everything he owns to make sure she can attend. Her community of Washington Heights, a northern suburb of Manhattan in New York, welcomes home their aspiring native daughter. Everyone is so proud that she has made it out of the barrio to pursue her dream. She is hiding the secret from them too--but for how long?
Her vibrant Hispanic neighborhood is like those in Denver, full of energy and life, but also full of change. Like the “west side,” or Denver’s “north side,” now called “The Highlands,” once thriving with Latino culture are now giving way to an urban resurgence. This city’s core has been rediscovered as bit by bit the community is scraped to make room for trendier occupants and their hangouts. There’s the bodega, the corner drugstore operated by Usnavi, with its café con leche that draws the locals for socializing. So does Vanessa’s beauty salon, where the ladies, co-workers Carla and Daniela, gather to catch up on all the neighborhood chisme (gossip). Vanessa wants to move her shop as she is being pushed out by rising rents. Usnavi has a big crush on Vanessa, but he is too shy to ask her out. That’s where the primo Cousin Sonny steps in.
There’s also the rekindled affection between Nina and Benny, which reveal the ugly side of Nina’s father, Kevin. Benny worked for years in Nina’s father taxi dispatch business and was considered part of the family. Now he is looked upon with disdain as “not good enough” for his educated daughter. Like many grandmothers, Claudia opens her home to a struggling relative, Usnavi, who needs a place to live while he figures out his life. He looks after her and her after him. But Claudia, the abuela (grandmother) has come into great fortune. She holds a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000. She knows it will change the lives of those she cares for most. But what happened to that lottery ticket and what became of the much-loved abuela Claudia? Bring a handkerchief. Will the residents of the once tightly knit community of Washington Heights go their separate ways as their neighborhood is transformed or will they stay and struggle to make the best of a life they have worked so hard to build?
While the story is engaging, it is the music that makes this play pulse with energy and excitement. From Benny’s hip hop rap ranting, as he sends out taxis to their varied destinations to the salsa, meringue and bachata rhythms along with the dazzling dance numbers that accompany them demonstrate why this production nominated in 2008 for 13 Tony Awards and won for best musical score, best orchestrations, best choreography and best Broadway musical and scored a 2008 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. It covers three generations of music appealing to not just the young, but as the abuela Claudia proves in her song, “Paciencia y Fe,” (“Patience and Faith”) to everyone.
Denverite James Contreras who has twice traveled to New York’s Richard Roberts theatre to see “In the Heights” said, “It is the most exhilarating theatre production I have ever experienced.” In its review The New York Times said of “In the Heights, “The energy if gives off could light up the George Washington Bridge for a year or two.”
This first touring version of the production has received equal praise. ““In the Heights” wows in Tampa” read the headline of the Tampa Bay Tribune calling it “flawless.” In Chicago, it was, “Tour really heats up Chicago’s winter,” with reviewer Paul Thompson writing, “it rises in clarity and intensity after intermission to the point of leaving audiences unable to breathe, gasping at key turns of events and, at Tuesday night’s opening performance here, audibly weeping. Don’t’ worry--the cheering happened too.”
Genevieve Miller, Public Relations Manager for the Denver Center of Performing Arts, (DCPA) stated that “In the Heights” was selected to play Denver for several reasons. “We’re bringing this production to Denver because it’s our mission to bring the best of Broadway to our city, and when a show wins the Tony Award for Best Musical--the biggest prize there is--then we definitely want to share it with Denver audiences. But more than that, we wanted to bring it here because it’s a special musical--absolutely unique among Broadway shows with its Latino and hip-hop music and groundbreaking choreography. It’s the kind of show that lifts people’s spirits and we want to share that with as many people as possible,” she said.
Log onto lavozcolorado.com, for links to video previews of the Broadway production.
“In the Heights” is truly a must see performance, for everyone and anyone who has ever dreamed of a better life for themselves, their children and their community. “In the Heights” plays the Buell theatre from April 28 through May 9, 2010. Tickets can be purchased on line at denvercenter.org or through TicketsWest at all King Soopers. Also look for upcoming special promotions from La Voz and the DCPA.