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REVIEW: "In the Heights"

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Lyric Theatre's production of "In the Heights" runs Aug.9-12 at the Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Center.
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Lyric Theatre has been in a New York state of mind lately: first, West Side Story and now, In the Heights. The former was an excellent restaging of proven material, while the latter presents proven material that here seems emotionally wan. Let’s see if we can figure out why.

Lin-Manuel Miranda (music/lyrics) started working on this show when he was in college. Later, Quiara Alegría Hudes (book) joined the effort culminating in 2008 Tony Awards for best original score and best musical.

The story takes place in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. You see the entrance to the 181st Street subway at stage left, and the George Washington Bridge looms in the background. Multiple story lines weave their way through the show as denizens of this multi-ethnic, working-class barrio experience the vicissitudes of life: triumphs and tragedies, successes and failures. Sometimes a little good luck comes their way.

Miranda’s score ranges widely, including hip-hop, salsa, pop and what you would have to call show tunes. He excels like no one else at adapting modern vernacular musical styles for the theater. But for all its currency and hipness, In the Heights is an old-fashioned book musical. It’s a cousin of West Side Story.

Lyric’s production features a scenic design by Anna Louizos that’s equally realistic and functional. She figured out how to transition smoothly from exteriors to interiors of businesses along the street. At one point, the street scene dissolves convincingly into a dance club.

Scott Westervelt’s costumes are spot on, and Helena Kuukka’s lighting is effective and understated. A question for props designer Courtney Strong: where did a character named Graffiti Pete get that shiny new bicycle? He hasn’t gained fame (or money) yet as a graffiti artist, although he shows skillful potential late in the show.

The director Michael Balderrama has staged this musical with integrity. It has everything it should and nothing superfluous. While his choreography fits with the music and subject, it fades quickly from memory.

The cast maintains a high energy level the show needs. Keith Contreras-McDonald plays Usnavi, proprietor of a neighborhood bodega and first among equals in the ensemble cast. Cristina Sastre has a fine singing voice as Nina, who has a chance to get out of the barrio with a scholarship to Stanford. Unfortunately, it’s not a full-ride.

Vincent J. Hooper and Alicia Taylor Tomasko play characters who have their own aspirations. As the grandmother in fact, if not in blood, of Usnavi, Theresa Medina does a fine job establishing a character who’s critical in the storyline.

In 2014, Pollard Theatre Company staged a production of In the Heights that was visceral in artistic impact. So why doesn’t Lyric’s production have that power? The Pollard’s intimate theater puts the audience closer to the show than the capacious Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre does. A show that succeeds in one setting can seem dwarfed in a larger one. This phenomenon is observed often in theater. You can’t blame the material. This show has succeeded in the largest settings.

Another reason might be that this show does not stand up well to repeat viewings. It has some plot turns that can be experienced for the first time only once. If you’ve never seen In the Heights, your experience at Lyric’s production will be completely fresh. A woman near me said “Oh, no” at a critical point in the second act.

So, the final take on this production is if In the Heights is new to you, here’s an excellent opportunity to see one of our better modern musicals. If you have seen it, you may be excused from this production or you may go and make your own comparisons.

In the Heights
Wednesday, August 9th, 2017 7:30pm to Saturday, August 12th, 2017 8:00pm
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
201 N Walker St
Oklahoma City, OK 73106
405-524-9312
Prices from: $40.00

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About the Author

Larry Laneer

Larry Laneer has reviewed theater for several Oklahoma City publications.  He has...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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