With less gritty realism and attention to societal ills than West Side Story, Lin-Manuel Miranda's contemporary immigrant story, In the Heights, gets by on its wits and rhythms. The plot -- money troubles, love troubles, apartment troubles -- offers nothing nearly as earthshaking as the tamest Ugly Betty episode. But the energy hardly ever stops pulsing. Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography sparkles; the music energizes. And most refreshingly, for a new Broadway musical, the lyrics propel the story with smart poetry and clever rhymes.
"It's all about the legacy," raps Usnavi, the young man running the bodega his parents once owned. Portrayed sweetly by Kyle Beltran, Usnavi is the hardworking son of parents who emigrated from the Dominican Republic. They named their son something aspirational -- "U.S. Navy," taken from an American boat they saw when they arrived.
Across the street Nina's parents, Kevin and Camila, have planned a big homecoming dinner to celebrate their daughter's return home from her first year at Stanford. She is the local kid who makes good, the one that made it out, the pride of the neighborhood. She can't bring herself to tell them all that she couldn't hack it at Stanford.
Arielle Jacobs is lovely and authentic as Nina, the ingenue who has disappointed her parents academically and romantically. Isabel Santiago is full of vitality as Daniela, the brassy hair salon owner who leads a spicy gossip anthem with the refrain, "tell me something I don't know." And Shaun Taylor-Corbett brings terrific comic timing to his role as Sonny, Usnavi's scrappy young cousin. They've all known each other forever.
"I used to think we lived at the top of the world, when the world was just a subway street map," Nina sings. Its one of many canny and touching lyrics in this play. California aside, even Greenwich Village seems a world a way; Vanessa (Sabrina Sloan) works at the beauty salon next to the bodega, and is trying to rent an apartment downtown, but can't scrape together the money.
Scraping together money and scraping by are themes that linger throughout the play. They're underscored with subtle sweetness in the song of the piragua vendor, the old man who sells shaved ice with fruit syrup from his push cart. "Piragua, Piragua" he sings as he scrapes his block of ice and worries about Mr. Softee. "But I keep scraping by the fading light...Keep scraping by."
Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created the role of Usnavi on Broadway and will play him in the film adaptation, wrote the lyrics and music. The songs propel the story much better than does Quiara Alegria Hudes's book.
Within the genre of urban youth musicals, it's somewhat refreshing that business competition with Mr. Softee and worrying about scholarships are matters worth contemplating in the theater. No one is getting stabbed or shot. No one O.D.s or dies of AIDS. Yes, there's some racism -- Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.) who works for Nina's dad intuits that. But no one is really disaffected -- this isn't Rent or American Idiot -- or West Side Story. The neighbors here have "paciencia y fe" -- patience and faith. Which is a song sung by Abuela Claudia, the barrio elder, played by Elise Santora. She sings of poverty in Havana, and her mama's words, "Vamos a Nueva York.. Today she grandmothers the block, practices paciencia y fe -- and plays the Lotto.
Yes, the Lotto... Abuela's advanced age... the cost of college or West Village apartments. The flirtations between beauticians and bodega owners... the taxi dispatcher's apprentice and his boss' daughter... there are few surprises and no attempts to reign in sentimentality.
But somehow, director Thomas Kail manages to catch it before it becomes a sticky syrupy melted piragua of cloying mawkishness. In a genre where more nearly always means too much, In the Heights is just enough.