by Jeff Grygny
Lin-Manuel Miranda. Ever since the space-warpingly successful Hamilton hit Broadway, he’s been the hottest thing in musical theater; we should really give his name as “Lin-Manuel Miranda!” or better still: ¡Lin-Manuel Miranda! For Milwaukeeans curious about this prodigy, but without the means or desire to cough up the equivalent of a luxury car payment for travel and tickets, there have been few good options. Now, Milwaukee Repertory Theater is offering In The Heights, Miranda’s love letter to the Washington Heights neighborhood where he grew up, and the first musical on his path to glory. Of all the theater companies in town, only the Rep has the resources to bring a mostly Hispanic cast of professional singer/dancer/actors to realize the show as completely as they do here. There is some irony in the well-heeled opening night crowd, full of wealthy donors, cheering on a slice-of-life musical about immigrants from the Dominican Republic scraping out a living in Upper Mahnhattan; it’s a little like the Renaissance nobles enjoying pageants of happy shepherds. But the world is full of ironies, and the chilled souls of Wisconsinites have always been enchanted by our neighbors south of the border. However that may be, it’s undeniable that the Rep delivers the goods in every way: Great music, wonderful dancing, moving performances, surprises, laughs, and characters that really do win their way into your heart.
The stories are interwoven around a single street, where a bodega, a beauty shop, a flavored-ice cart, and the local graffiti artist are all fixtures. The issues of these first-generation immigrants— women and men, parents and children, the struggle for money and the yearning to escape to something bigger—are universal. But Miranda’s street-eye view, his empathy for his characters, and his Shakespearean use of language—especially in the rap numbers for which he is justly famous— spin theme, psychology, and dramatic action into a flow of witty wordplay. Together with winning performances, Dan Kazemi’s reliably all-in music direction, and stage direction by May Adrales that weaves the story into a whole fabric, skillfully playing with focus on key moments while encouraging her cast to show subtle relationships and revealing actions, the production pulses with the beating heart of a community; even the unnamed characters bring vitality and distinctive personalities.
Ryan Alvarado is our charismatic narrator, and master rapper, while Stephanie Gomerez is his saucy heart-throb, and Nicolas Garza his street-smart little brother; Sophia Macías and David Kaverman soulfully discover each other, while Tony Chiroldes and Karmine Alers bring humor and dignity as a husband and wife chasing the American Dream; Henry Gainza’s golden voice vends piragua, and the delightful Lillian Castillo enlivens every scene as the beauty shop owner. Yassmin Alers is radiant, in a down-to-earth way, as the grandmotherly spirit of the tribe. Many of the players have performed this show before, and many remark in their program bios just how meaningful it is to them to be telling “our story.” Their commitment is more than professional, more even than artistic, and it shows.
Miranda is generous to his characters, giving everyone their moment—which accounts for the show’s nearly three-hour playing time. But time passes quickly as the story moves among the assorted domestic dramas: a winning lottery ticket, a dance club showdown, a rap battle, a city-wide blackout that occasions a spontaneous street fiesta. The magic of the show—and what may be most essential to its audiences—is how all the elements, in continuous inter-relation with each other, create a life that is greater than their sum. This mirrors how community is created out of countless little gestures, affections, bonds and shared experiences. In his modern classic The Gift, poet Lewis Hyde describes how many tribal peoples practice a “gift economy:” when someone has wealth, they give it away, incurring prestige and bonds of gratitude. When someone receives a gift, they at some point pass it along to someone else; the point isn’t to accumulate wealth, but to insure that value keeps moving, guaranteeing a flow of prosperity to all members of the society. It is how societies stay vital. In gift economies, relationships are personal and warm— in sharp contrast to the economy of the market, where everyone calculates how much they can get from every transaction, and wealth exists only to hoard (which society would you rather live in?).
If In The Heights is a little like a cartoon, it’s not because the characters are two-dimensional; rather it’s because, as seen through the rosy glow of Miranda’s love, it’s animated—by a vitality that spills beyond the skin, into the air, into the music, into the movement; a vivid picture of what life is like when you live, not as an isolated “me,” but as one of an “us.” Performance is perhaps the most generous of all the arts; this show a wonderful gift to the city.
Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents
In The Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
playing through October 28