Rhythm and delivery at first sounds like rap, then hip hop. A little more and it's definitely a heart of poetry. The slam and the beat. A sound distinct, the patter unique, the ears in for a treat. Yes, the mood sinks and bobs, but the spirit rises up and eats up a charge, an energy born in the lyrics.
Graffiti Pete (Roddy Kennedy) spritzes his cans with awkward thrusting ready to vandalise an awning, and then a typical day starts in the neighbourhood when he's chased off with a tongue of slam poetry courtesy of Usnavi (Perry Young). This is the point your spine straightens and your eardrums rub the lobes smoothly, soothingly. And it doesn't stop making the bridge.
In The Heights centres itself on a corner of Washington Heights in New York. Latin and Black Americans in a heat that never ends. The community and history comes out quick to the scene, thanks to the book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, and we're on the next chorus.
"Benny's Dispatch" sees Kyle Carter rapping adjacent to suave over the airwaves, kicking a few lines with Nina (Virginia Cavaliere), back from a scholarship in the big city and trying to feel home again. They have an instant chemistry. You can't explain it.
Nina deals with the crushing disappointment most kids of migrant parents grow up with. Hiding it and making sure you don't disappoint your parents. Whose stories themselves are wild in their sheer courage in landing on shores where they don't speak the language and plying their lives to make sure the next generation has a better chance.
"No Me Diga" is a fun aside with Daniela (Tauren Hagans), Carla (Katherine Brady), Vanessa (Presilah Nuñez) and Nina catching up while packing up the salon. But there's the undertone, the depressing note that catches most of it. The real gut punch comes in the second act. Short and tender, Nina's father Kevin (Benjamin Perez) aches as he sings "Atencion" over the radio. His face just breaks on issuing that radio call to his fleet of drivers. The trough to the group crest of "96,000" from the first.
The set is a wonderful freak of vanishing points cutting the apartment blocks at angles that force a dizzy perspective. The single scene features a playground for the actors to just sprout here and there in the dark of a hot summer's night out on the balcony and steps. The swinging door of Usnavi's bodega, so simple in build, so greatly throws you into the illusion of being inside the store or standing on the street watching them pass through.
The entire stage is deliberately static. The only changing features are the lives of the people and the signs that hang over their heads. Each time a shutter closes or a sign changes, the mood shifts the entire stage itself. A visceral pause watching the transformation and change happen right before your eyes knowing that something else is going on. Change is constant and so is the love of being in a community that loves you back.
The ensemble know how to move their joints, cocking their bodies between the stillness of a vignette or catching a moment of reflection. It all serves itself to usher where the best dancing happens. Right in your head, where the magic really unfolds. Taking your ears to the floor as they sing and bring in the ring of the beat; the patter and the rain of words and song.
There's an unmistakable rhythm and soul of poetry in the lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Slamming stanzas and throwing lines with a staccato that takes you back into that floor, sitting and listening to the struggle of life on the street and picking up a name for yourself. That name with its share of troubles, but equally with a load of hope and light that rips you out of the gutters and puts you where your dreams of happiness sit.
In The Heights is an uplifting musical with solid story and earnest characters that leaves you chasing your mouth around consonance and alliteration.
Snapping a segment of neck along to the pulse of the Saturday, 21 January 2012 matinee performance at the Lexington Opera House. Ten minutes catches out half the crowd at the intermission during the split over 150 minutes.
Reviewed on Wednesday, 25 January 2012