Tonawanda News

January 21, 2010

THEATER: 'In the Heights' opens at Shea's

By Phil Dzikiy<br><a href="mailto:phil.dzikiy@lockportjournal.com">E-mail Phil</a>

One of the hottest Broadway musicals in recent years started its first national tour late last year and next week, the tour comes to Buffalo.

“In the Heights” is making a stop at Shea’s from Tuesday through Sunday. The musical won four Tony Awards in 2008 — Best Original Score, Best Choreography, Best Orchestrations and most notably, Best Musical.

“In the Heights” is set in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, which is a predominantly Dominican-American neighborhood in the northern end of Manhattan. The characters are Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and the score heavily features salsa, soul, hip-hop and merengue music. But the world created in the musical isn’t an insular one, according to Lisa Grisanti, director of marketing and public relations at Shea’s.

“It really is a show that appeals to all ages and all ethnicities,” Grisanti said. “It’s a universal story.”

Grisanti spoke of the show’s universal themes — family, tradition, struggles — as the main draws. The story of “In the Heights” takes place over the course of three days, as the lives of neighbors and family members intertwine.

Concerns about the setting of “In the Heights” being a completely foreign world to (often upper-class and white) theater audiences obviously exist, but they’re quickly rebuffed by anyone familiar with the show.

“In the Heights” composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda acknowledges the show makes an effort to welcome audience members into an unfamiliar neighborhood. In a press Q&A; with Miranda, an interviewer mentioned that “In The Heights” honors the past with references to Duke Ellington and Cole Porter songs.

Asked if he saw such tunes as “important signposts for the audience,” Miranda said, “One of the things we try to do in the opening number is say, ‘Hey, you may be somewhere you’ve never been before, but it’s fine, you’re going to like it.’ ”

Miranda was also asked if the show’s use of Spanish disoriented audience members, who might have trouble understanding parts of the show.

“Most of our audience is your typical, theatergoing audience,” Miranda said. “It’s wonderful that we’ve become an event show for Latinos on Broadway, but the overwhelming majority of people who come to see our show — and this was particularly true off-Broadway — don’t speak a word of Spanish. And they come away loving it. They understand it. We’ve taken great care to make sure you get everything in context.”

The characters of “In the Heights” run the gamut in terms of age — one character is in her late 60s — though younger characters drive the story, including the main protagonist, Usnavi, who owns a bodega in the neighborhood. (Usnavi was played by Miranda in the original Broadway version of the show.) As a young business owner, Usnavi typifies the passion and ambition that run through “In the Heights.” Hopes and dreams are key themes within the play.

When asked if he was a dreamer, Miranda’s answer was clear-cut: “I don’t know where I’d be if I weren’t. More often than not, musical theater doesn’t work. There are a lot of bad musicals in the world. But when it works, it’s more transporting than anything else. It’s magical. I don’t know how you work in musical theater if you’re not a dreamer.”

“In the Heights,” it appears, hasn’t reached its own heights yet. Not only is the first national tour already under way, but Universal Pictures is adapting the musical for a feature film release.

The movie will be directed by Kenny Ortega, director of “Michael Jackson: This Is It” and the “High School Musical” films. Miranda will reprise his role as Usnavi for the film.

For more information on “In the Heights,” visit www.intheheightsthemusical.com.

For information on the Shea’s show, visit www.sheas.org or call the box office at 847-1410.