There are almost always walk-outs during intermission even of a good show, but honestly, barring a family emergency, I cannot imagine anyone not coming back for Act 2 of the In the Heights other than it being — ahem — “too ethnic.” The opening number is an eight-minute rap sung by Dominicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans. The dance moves are more pop-and-lock than step-ball-change. They wear Nikes and Bedazzled tank-tops, not toe shoes and tutus. The only white faces you’ll see for two and half hours are those in the audience. Don’t like it? It’s called life.
In the Heights has a Broadway antecedent in Rent, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score simply has more street cred than Jonathan Larson’s more traditional rock-by-way-of-Puccini music. Caribbean beats, Latin rhythms and freestyle rap/hip-hop live alongside each other in the same harmony as the residents of New York’s Washington Heights barrio. Usnavi (played at the performance reviewed by Robert Ramirez) runs the bodega next to the neighborhood salon and the Rosarios’ cab company. It’s the day before July 4, and the Rosarios’ daughter, Nina (Virginia Cavaliere, who has a beautiful voice) has just returned from college in California. Benny (Kyle Carter) has a crush on Nina, but he’s not good enough for Mr. Rosario (Benjamin Perez) that is, not the right color. Meanwhile, Unsavi is trying to shore up the courage to ask out Vanessa (Presilah Nunez), who works at the salon but will be moving downtown.
This is a rangy story, that centers around how the week’s winning lottery ticket was sold at Usnavi’s store; when we learn who, the audience lets out a collective gasp. We know it’ll change at least one life forever.
The songs are remarkably adept capturing the immigrant experience; I defy anyone to list to “Inutil,” “Paciencia y Fe” or the title opener and not be both moved and exhilarated. Even in this non-Equity production (Carter seems the most out of his depth), the passion, the energy and the singing are apparent. If Ken Burns ever wanted to make a musical, he couldn’t find a better expression of the American experience than In the Heights.
In the Heights at the Winspear Opera House through March 25. Dallas Voice Life+Style Editor Arnold Wayne Jones will hold a discussion about the show in the Winspear’s Hamon Hall before the performance on Tues., March 20 at 7 p.m.