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Review: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, “In the Heights,” fails to live up to his reputation

A view of Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan. The musical “In the Heights” is set in Washington Heights. SIMPLETHRILL/FLICKR VIA CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Lin-Manuel Miranda has become a Broadway phenomenon, with his historical hip hop musical “Hamilton” becoming one of the most popular and acclaimed shows in recent Broadway history.  But another show, “In the Heights,” officially landed him a spot on Broadway in 2008.

I attended the John W. Engeman Theater’s revival of “In the Heights” in Northport in order to bear witness to the beginnings of Miranda’s career, and I left the theater incredibly confused as to how the musical could have possibly won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical.

The few positive aspects of this production were the actors and the set design. While nobody stood out among the group, the actors gave enthusiastic performances. It was the set design, though, that was one of the most attention-grabbing parts of the show.

In order to simulate a Latin American neighborhood in Washington Heights, the production crafted three storefronts: a small market, a salon and a car rental establishment. These three shops are packed with appropriate props: innumerable plastic bottles for the market, fashion magazines and advertisements for the salon and so forth. By incorporating so many details in such a little space, the set designers created the authentic essence of a Hispanic neighborhood that is aesthetically pleasing.  

Unfortunately, the plot of the musical is a cluttered, unfocused mess. There are two main storylines – one centered on the store clerk, Usnavi, who wants to woo the beautiful Vanessa, despite his lowly position, and the second focused on the family of college student, Nina, as they search for a way to fund her expensive tuition at a California university.  

Such simple plots should have been easy to translate on-stage, but Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, who co-wrote the musical, manage to sink them in a bog of subplots. Among these sub-plots are the following: Vanessa struggling to find an affordable apartment, Usnavi’s friend Benny trying to establish his own business and a blackout during a Fourth of July celebration.

With all these storylines occurring at the same time, it is hard to keep track of what just happened, particularly when much of the dialogue and exposition is conveyed through rapid rap. Indeed, information was conveyed in such a quick manner that one might have trouble even remembering the names of the characters by the second act. The end result is a chaotic mess, where plot threads seem to come out of nowhere and take attention away from the actual main plot. And, to add even more confusion, many lines are in Spanish, meaning audience members who are unfamiliar with the language will have even more trouble understanding what is going on.

The songs of “In the Heights” consist mostly of the aforementioned rap, so those seeking melodic tunes, beware! The few moments of traditional Latin music dispensed throughout the musical serve as the only sonically enjoyable pieces, as they aren’t overly loud or fast like the songs that feature rapping.

In the rap sections’ defense, they are devoid of the explicit content that is usually found in modern rap, and the overall profanity is kept to a minimum. The actors impressed by keeping up with the fast beat of the rap while dancing at the same time, a feat that requires well-executed coordination.

Although the Engeman did its best in producing “In the Heights,” it is unfortunate that the content of the musical itself was too flawed to be truly entertaining. With a cluttered narrative and an overreliance on rap for both exposition and song, only rap enthusiasts could find this musical to be appealing. It is a shame that the play fails to live up to expectations, because the musical’s thematic exploration of a Hispanic, inner-city community bonding together is one that isn’t seen too often on the Broadway stage. 

“In the Heights” runs through April 29 at Engeman Theatre in Northport.

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