Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Aurora Theatre Hits "the Heights"

[Photo collage (clockwise from top left): Felicia Hernandez as "Abuela Claudia," Diana Rodriguez as "Nina," Diego Klock-Perez as "Usnavi," Julissa Sabino as "Vanessa," Rodriguez, and Garrett Turner, who plays "Benny."]

On opening night for In the Heights at the Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville, Georgia, it took until the second-act song "Carnaval de Barrio" for the older white man in the red-striped short sleeved shirt in the front row to get into it.  But by then he was on board, laughing and clapping along with the beat, notwithstanding that the beat was calypso and that characters waved flags from Caribbean and Latin American countries of origin.

Earlier, he'd sat cross-armed and stony-faced.  Though I'm younger, even I remember Lawrenceville as a little place way the heck out from Atlanta.  Now it's just another exit for Atlanta commuters. So this guy looked like he'd awakened in a foreign land.  Sensitive to that feeling, the Aurora Theatre's producer had almost apologized to her opening night crowd of white, older season subscribers for doing a show about the hip-hop generation in Washington Heights.  But she said that there was no betrayal of the theatre's mission to "reflect the community," because an invited audience of local high school groups earlier that week had been thrilled to see themselves reflected on stage: This is the way we are, now.

She needn't have worried.  The show builds bridges from its first moments, to people like Mr. Red Shirt, to people who don't like musicals, to people who think they don't like new musicals, and to people like me, for whom hip-hop is as foreign as Spanish.

So it may suggest a metaphor that Washington Bridge takes center stage on a backdrop between two authentic-looking facades of apartment/shop buildings.  Designer Shannon Robert somehow packed the tall, narrow stage with four stories of workable windows, doors, fire escapes, and rolling window grate for the lead character's bodega, "just another dime-a-dozen mom-and-pop stop-and-shop."

Hip-hop aside, the opener is traditional as "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof.   Our guide to the neighborhood is bodega-owner "Usnavi," a young man whose "syntax is highly complicated / cuz [he] emigrated" from the Dominican Republic, land of his late parents, where he someday wants to return.  He tells us in rapid-fire, intricately rhymed lyrics about his neighbors as he interacts with their early-morning routines.  By the end of the first number, we know some twelve characters of consequence to the story.

We also know that we like these people.  A variety of characters younger, older, and older still wear fedora, or tight skirts, or pants sagging, or dress shirt buttoned and neck-tied.  But they all are friendly; they all more or less take care of each other;  they all banter with good humor.  Aurora Theatre has also found a cast of actors to embody them who can all dance, some with balletic strength and grace; one (Joseph Pendergrast) with acrobatic break-dancing skill; all with energy and precision.  The voices are all strong, enunciating the spoken verses, reaching the highs and lows, louds and softs of the sung ballads and anthems.  They made it look easy.  By the end, Mr. Red Shirt and I were in awe of these young actors (and a few older ones) for their skill, and, Lord knows, their stamina.


Composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (now world-famous for Hamilton) signals that he knows the Tradition early on.  At mention of the "A" train, Miranda's supple accompaniment accommodates a couple measures of Billy Strayhorn's tune for the Ellington band; moments later, telling us it's "too darn hot," Usnavi salutes "his man" -- or is it Miranda's man? -- Cole Porter.  Many of the characters sing full-throated Broadway songs.  Miranda gives a prominent role to the wandering "Piragua" man who sings his sales pitch for flavored ice cones like the street vendors in Porgy and Bess whose songs evoked daily life of the community.  Many of the songs in act one are of the "I want" type -- "Breathe" for "Nina," "Inutil (Useless)" for her father, "It Won't Be Long Now" for Vanessa, and everyone's verses in the song about winning the lottery, "96,000."  Other songs are little one-act plays with musically-heightened sung dialogue, in the manner of Stephen Sondheim, such as "Benny's Dispatch" (a love song wrapped inside instructions to taxi drivers), a Spanish lesson that turns erotic in "Sunrise," and the comic scene between Usnavi and his would-be lover Vanessa, "Champagne."   Even when Miranda repeats a phrase in the manner of a pop song with a hook, he never just repeats it, finding new applications for the phrase "Everything I Know," or for bilingual synonyms "inutil," "useless," and "powerless," even before the power goes out -- turning a plot incident into a thematic metaphor.

The YouTube program Musical Theatre Mash points out how In the Heights honors a tradition even older than classic American musicals, namely, Aristotle's three unities.  There's unity of place: Except when a shift in lights turns the street to the interior of a dance club, all the action takes place on one corner of one street.  Book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes also respects the classical unity of time, as the story unfolds over one 4th of July weekend. There's also a unity of action, as the characters who want so much in act one break through in act two, with the catalyst of a cataclysmic power outage.

Thanks to friend Susan for noticing an homage to Dorothy's "silver slippers" in the original book of The Wizard of Oz:  the character who realizes that what he sought elsewhere is right there at home is also wearing silver high-tops.

So, Mr. Red Shirt, the small town of Lawrenceville, and I, have heard the unfamiliar sounds of hip-hop in Lin-Manuel Miranda's distant neighborhood of Washington Heights, and it feels to us like home.

See my earlier reflection on Lin-Manuel Miranda's work, As If Hamilton Needed More Raves.

1 comment:

Kitty Drew said...

Your review makes me wish we were seeing the show sooner than September, Scott! You have captured eloquently what great theatre provides---and the reluctant red-shirted man was the perfect protagonist for your prose!