Before he was Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton supergenius, he was merely Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights genius, a well-received, less historically informed musical which might have been his legacy, were it not for his foresight in sniffing out America’s latent craze for our first Treasury secretary.
Just because it doesn’t feature any powdered wigs, however, doesn’t make In the Heights any less traditional. The original production won the Best Musical Tony in 2008 by bringing Miranda’s upper Manhattan neighborhood down to Broadway, giving audiences a slice of New York Dominican and Boricua life while sticking to a time-honored formula: colorful ensembles, cutesy romance, and corny jokes. There’s little conflict but a lot of heart in this feel-good story that’s a celebration of a particular community, but of community values above all.
Too bad Gala Theatre, and director Luis Salgado couldn’t have turned In the Heights into Columbia Heights rather than Washington Heights, and a Central American rather than Caribbean immigrant story; it would have worked just as well. But Gala’s production is a faithful, officially sanctioned adaptation, based on two translations of Miranda’s English original: one in Dominican Spanish and one in “normal” Spanish (it’s still half in English, with English surtitles). The play’s Dominican-centric content was a source of great mirth for Friday’s largely non-Dominican Latino audience, reflecting the attitude in the rest of Latin America that Dominican Spanish is especially funny sounding (Dominicans have a sense of humor about this too; just search Youtube for Dominican Matrix, Dominican 300, and, my favorite, Dominican Osama bin Laden).
Even the name of the central character, bodega owner Usnavi (as in U.S. Navy, a not-uncommon name in a country that was militarily occupied by the United States as recently as 1965) is a source of chuckles. There’s a pair of romances, a hapless one between shy Usnavi (Juan Luis Espinal, taking Miranda’s role) and bombshell Vanessa (Verónica Álvarez), and a forbidden one between college girl Nina (Laura Lebrón) and African-American Benny (Vaughn Ryan Midder), who works as a taxi dispatcher for her dad. The principals give the best singing performances—Lebrón, as Nina, is a standout—though some of the ensemble numbers aren’t entirely in key. The expansive cast paints a vibrant picture of the neighborhood, from Cuban grandmother Claudia (Michelle Rios) to Nina’s striving, doting, bickering parents Kevin (José Capellán) and Camila (Shadia Fairuz). Even the smallest characters are memorable; one of the best is Felix Marchany playing an unnamed sno-cone vendor who’s not above sabotaging the competition.
Musical theater is an inherently hidebound genre. So even In the Heights, with its modern setting and diverse cast, is as self-consciously conventional as it is woke. Its Romeo and Juliet plot set in Latino upper Manhattan evokes West Side Story, though in a post-performance talkback, Salgado stated Miranda’s main inspiration was Fiddler on the Roof. Sure enough, the American immigrant dream and struggle between assimilation and ethnic identity can be easily transposed to any number of groups and still feel right.
Even the musical cues are throwbacks. Though Miranda’s score, performed by a live ensemble led by conductor Bobby McCoy, throws in some Hamilton-style old school hip-hop, it mostly sticks to abuelita-friendly fare of bachata, merengue, and salsa. No dembow, for example, the Dominican cousin to reggaeton that city kids actually listen to, even though stars like DJ Boyo and Grupo Unido had been around for a decade when In the Heights came out. As much as I love Juan Luis Guerra’s Bachata Rosa, an obvious touchstone here, in the DR I learned “that’s for old people.”
But an old-fashioned score for an old fashioned genre makes sense, even more so for a classic immigrant story. Diaspora communities tend to get frozen in time. I see it in my own Korean community in Virginia, where teenagers still go on dates at bakeries, something that hasn’t been a thing in Korea since the 60s when Koreans first started immigrating to the U.S. and have acted like it’s still the ’60s ever since. So for the teen characters in this musical to be dancing boleros rather than perreos isn’t too hard to swallow. Especially for a musical audience, one in D.C. no less. If Miranda’s story of a specific community at a specific time feels familiar and timeless, it’s because it was designed to. In the Heights is a Werther’s original in a funky new package, a vision of urban youth culture that’s hip but not too hip, where kids rock their Jordans but respect their elders. For those of us on the outside looking in, it’s reassuring to be told everything old is new again, and vice versa.
At GALA Hispanic Theatre through May 21. 3333 14th St. NW. $40–$60. (202) 234-7174. en.galatheatre.org.