In the Heights at the Fifth Avenue – Review
by Audrey Gervasi
The Fifth Avenue Theatre opens its 2010-2011 season with the Tony Award-Winning musical In the Heights. This contemporary piece about the residents of New York City’s Washington Heights features a tasty Latin flavored musical score, sizzling salsa numbers, and moving ballads. Indeed, the best feature of this show is the music.
The story focuses on two young couples, Nina and Benny (Arielle Jacobs and Rogelio Douglas Jr.), and Usnavi and Vanessa (Joseph Morales and Lexi Lawson), as Nina returns from her first year at Stanford University to tell her parents she lost her scholarship and has dropped out. Benny works for Nina’s parents, and her father Kevin does not approve of Benny as a partner for his daughter because, in Kevin’s opinion, Benny “will never understand our culture.” Usnavi runs the corner grocery and looks after his younger brother Sonny, while Vanessa works at a beauty salon that is about to move out of the neighborhood to escape a rent increase. Both are looking for a way to fulfill their dreams, and Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora), the neighborhood matriarch, may hold the key (or in this case, the ticket).
There is a fine line between “universal” and “unoriginal,” and unfortunately the story and its themes seem just a little too familiar. Underprivileged barrio residents struggle to make ends meet while they dream of ways to escape, cultures clash as children rebel against their parents’ traditions, while those same children represent the hopes of their parents. And although characters such as Daniela and Carla, Vanessa’s beauty salon co-workers, add humor, they were overt Latina stereotypes.
That said, the production itself is high quality. The cast is top-notch. The music is outstanding, with a contemporary score featuring hip hop and salsa rhythms. The vocal highlights are Nina and Bennie’s duets. Arielle Jacobs shines as Nina, and her voice is truly a pleasure to experience. When Rogelio Douglas Jr. as Benny adds his rich vocals to their songs, the result is quite poignant. Santora too deserves a nod for her powerful vocals. Morales’ numbers are most often sung in an energetic rap, accompanied by hip hop dancers, and he is a dynamic performer. The dance highlight is “The Club/Fireworks” at the end of Act I–a feast for the eyes and ears as the cast members perform complex salsa choreography.
In the Heights runs through October 17. For tickets and information go to www.5thavenuetheatre.org.