Theatre Is Easy: “In the Heights”

BOTTOM LINE: In the Heights is the first musical I’ve seen in a long time that has something for everyone. It’s original and provocative without being whiny, and the music, choreography, and talent are all top-notch.

In the Heights has so much heart that I just want to give Lin-Manuel Miranda a hug. Miranda conceived the original idea, wrote the music and lyrics, and stars in the show. It’s safe to assume his work is at least somewhat autobiographical. The “Heights” refers to Washington Heights, and the show gives you an inside look at life in the barrio. Appropriately, much of the music and choreography are hip-hop influenced.

Although In the Heights is innovative in style and theme, it respectfully maintains a more traditional musical theatre structure. Usnavi (Miranda) serves as the narrator and invites the audience into his neighborhood to meet his people. The musical theatre conventions and conflicts are all in place: it’s sort of a coming-of-age story in a poor neighborhood where everyone is trying to get up and/or out. Meanwhile, the ingenue falls in love with the wrong boy, and everyone struggles to make ends meet and do right for their families. Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes — she wrote the book — tell a linear story about realistic people in a place that really exists.

The great thing about In the Heights is that the story is about 2008 and it’s told in a style that is appropriate for this time period. In the Heights uses music and choreography to help define place and time, and in doing so, it takes musical theatre to a groundbreaking place. Hip-hop works in musical theatre.

This show is original, and I can’t explain how refreshing that is. It actually has something new to say. So much of what’s on Broadway is derived from movies and books and plugged into “the Broadway machine.” In the Heights is original, it’s amazingly well done, and I hope it gets the respect it deserves.

It comes to Broadway from an extended run off-Broadway last year. If you saw it off-Broadway, here’s what you need to know: not that much has changed, but it’s a lot less gritty than it used to be. The Broadway version offers a beefier orchestra, flashier lighting, and a set that looks like a Hollywood interpretation of Washington Heights. They’ve added a couple of new songs and changed a couple of plot details to help explain the story, but it’s essentially the same as before. It plays well in a big Broadway theatre, and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography looks even hotter on a larger stage. If you’ve seen it before, see it again; it’s interesting to compare.

In the Heights is in previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., and opens March 9. Tickets are available at the box office and through Ticketmaster; $26.50 ticket lottery available, more info to come (intheheightsthemusical.com).

Check out theatreiseasy.com for other reviews and NY theatre information.