By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Pittsburgh’s in the middle of a Lin-Manuel Miranda festival of sorts. Not only is the tour of his record-breaking Hamilton in town, but movie-goers can catch him in Mary Poppins Returns and now Pittsburgh Musical Theatre is staging the show that put him on entertainment map in 2008: In the Heights.
It was, and is, hailed as one of the first Broadway musicals celebrating the Latinx community of New York’s Washington Heights using music and dance rooted in Latinx cultural. Miranda had an original voice and In the Heights promised something new for the contemporary musical theater scene.
In the Heights continues through February 3. Pittsburgh Musical Theater, West End. 412/539-0900. pittsburghmusicals.com
The show takes places over a few hot summer days and mostly concerns three Heights businesses; A hair salon run by the gossipy Daniela, the cab company of Kevin and Camila Rosario and the bodega of Usnavi, the show’s narrator and lead character.
Since it’s a musical it’s about love, too. Meet Nina and Benny – she’s the Rosarios’ daughter and he’s worked for them for years. The Rosarios are hoppin’ mad ’cause Nina’s dropped out of college and is seeing Benny … who is not Latino.
Other loves are Usnavi and Vanessa, she works at the salon and is so focused on her dream of getting away she’s blind to the large torch Usnavi is carrying. Through the whole course of the first act the heat is rising; not just the actual temperature but the passion of the lovers and the stress of the others.
Given the political focus of Hamilton, it’s important you not go into In the Heights expecting the same. Quiara Alegría Hudes (who won a Pulitzer for her play Water by the Spoonful) wrote the book and Miranda the lyrics and they’ve created, instead, an almost cartoon-version of this world.
And that’s not necessarily an insult. By “cartoon” I mean that the characters are drawn very broadly, motivations and obstacles are subtext free and the play’s events are “by design” rather than organic. Again, no judgement, it’s the style Hudes and Miranda have chosen … but what is bad is the easy and mawkish sentimentality overloaded in the second act. No spoilers, but being forewarned is being forearmed.
The Pittsburgh Musical Theater production is informed by the big, colorful style of the material. Director Erin Krom doesn’t waste a second of her time finding nuance or small moments – this company plays, without cease, at the very top level of their talent and gusto.
The singing, all of which is flat-out, no soft pedal, is really amazing; there are some powerful voices on stage and I want to make sure to mention all of the leads who sing with such drive; T. J. Newton, Morgan Jade Kirksey, Samantha Sayah, Melinette Pallares, Tru Verret-Fleming, Cynthia Harding, Rob Jessup and Bets Danko.
I will say it does feel a bit relentless and I kept waiting for Krom to allow the show to breathe, to let the story acquire weight and, perhaps, to stop the ringing in my ears. It’s a big, percussive score and because of both the acoustics in the performance hall and the volume of the orchestra I understood less than 50 percent of the lyrics and dialogue.
But the space Pittsburgh Musical Theater is performing in is a relatively new venue and working out some of the auditory bugs is probably an ongoing process.
I have a feeling that Miranda is going to be around for a very long time and here’s your chance to see how it all started way back when.