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Mediocre cast turns once-sizzling musical into bland soap opera

In the Heights

Dancap productions

1.5 out of 4 stars

There are some Broadway hits that owe a large part of their success to electrifying performers. In the Heights is one of those shows.

The 2008 quadruple Tony Award-winner, about Latin-American immigrant life in New York's Washington Heights neighbourhood, managed to overcome its tepid storyline with a sizzling ensemble and a white-hot lead performance by its songwriter-star, Lin-Manuel Miranda. The non-Equity touring version that has rolled into the Toronto Centre for the Arts, courtesy of Dancap Productions, doesn't have those assets.

And on opening night, it didn't even have its usual substitute for Miranda. Perry Young, who normally plays the upbeat bodega owner Usnavi – the role originated by Miranda – was absent. In his place was his understudy Jeffrey Nunez. So it's not possible to say if Young has Miranda's knock-'em-dead talent. Nunez certainly doesn't. His efforts, if enthusiastic, are merely adequate – which also describes the rest of the cast, not to mention the show as a whole.

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This is the musical's second national tour and the overall quality is like a photocopy of a photocopy. Anna Louizos's affectionately grotty street set, scaled back for touring, looks flimsy and one size too small. The lively score, alternating rap, salsa and power ballads, is hammered out with blaring brass by an unrestrained orchestra under the baton of Kurt Crowley. The band is placed so high in the sound mix that at times the singers seem to be straining to be heard over it. That might be one reason for a preponderance of shrill vocals.

When a production is mediocre like this one, it tends to magnify the flaws of the original material. The book, by Quiara Alegria Hudes, feels even more derivative now. Her affectionate slice of barrio life, spread over one sweltering Fourth of July weekend, keeps calling up unfavourable comparisons. It's like West Side Story without the gangs, or Do the Right Thing without the racial tension. Hudes makes an admirable attempt to find drama in the comparatively mundane aspects of immigrant life – the dreams of leaving the 'hood, the importance of community and family. But her characters are conventional types, and Miranda's songs keep revisiting the same themes over and over again.

Usnavi is the musical's MC in the hip-hop sense of the term. He's not just the local bodega owner but the barrio's unofficial bard, rapping out a vibrant picture of its denizens even as he serves them their sweet morning coffee. They include his unrequited love, Vanessa (Presilah Nunez), the bored manicurist at the unisex salon next door who is itching to ditch the Heights. While she wants to escape her roots, Nina (Virginia Cavaliere), the brainy kid who did get away, is back from college and wondering if leaving was such a good idea. As she prepares to break some bad news to her parents, she also renews her relationship with Benny (Kyle Carter), the young African American working at her family's limo service, which incurs the wrath of her Puerto Rican father (Benjamin Perez).

As Nina and Vanessa, Cavaliere and Nunez can belt out a soul-baring ballad in the approved Broadway – or should that be, American Idol? – tradition. What they lack is feeling and nuance. Christina Aranda is more effective as lovable old Abuela Claudia, the barrio's matriarch, in her eloquent number about emigrating from Cuba, Paciencia y Fe. (The show freely mixes Spanish with English.) The female performers in general are more impressive than their male colleagues. Carter is oddly geeky as the ambitious Benny. Robert Ramirez is appropriately geeky as Usnavi's slacker cousin Sonny – in fact, he resembles a Latino Martin Short – but he's never as funny as he's meant to be.

Hudes and Miranda spice up this bland soap opera with an unexpected lottery jackpot that could make some wishes come true and a power blackout that adds some much-needed tension.

Michael Balderrama has faithfully recreated director Thomas Kail's staging and Andy Blankenbuehler's Tony-winning choreography for this tour. Watching the ensemble bust Blankenbuehler's moves with exuberance – if not always precision – is one of the few pleasures of this production. That and appreciating Howell Binkley's urban lighting, in which the rosy glow of sunset over the George Washington Bridge is sliced by the white beams of streetlamps.

To be fair, by the second act the company hits its stride. By then it has the energy and cohesion that it should have had at the top of the show. But you know it's not a good thing when a Toronto opening-night audience, so quick to leap to its feet at the least sign of competence, is still sitting at the curtain call.

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In the Heights

  • Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
  • Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
  • Directed by Thomas Kail
  • Starring Jeffrey Nunez, Virginia Cavaliere, Presilah Nunez, Kyle Carter
  • At the Toronto Centre for the Arts

In the Heights runs until Feb. 19.

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