America needs a great immigration musical, now more than ever.
And we’ve got it.
It’s not Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway musical Hamilton, billed by Miranda as an immigration tale. Inspired by the life of Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant and the nation’s first treasury secretary, it earned the 2016 Tony Award for best musical. Miranda even won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But Hamilton’s immigrant roots aren’t front and center for much of that show.
Instead, it’s Miranda’s In the Heights, which follows three days in the lives of three generations living in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in north Manhattan with a strong identity rooted in many of its residents' Dominican Republic heritage. In the Heights earned the Tony Award for best musical in 2008.
Valley audiences were introduced to In the Heights at ASU Gammage in 2010, when Lin-Manuel Miranda reprised the role of Usnavi, a young bodega owner trying to make a life beyond making ends meet, for the Tempe run.
This month, Phoenix Theatre opened its 2016-17 season with In the Heights, which continues there through October 2. It features Miranda’s music and lyrics, and book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, an American playwright whose Water by the Spoonful won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Phoenix Theatre has taken some heat for casting decisions, especially casting non-Latino Pasha Yamotahari as Usnavi, a lead character who also serves as the musical's narrator.
Miranda clearly recognizes the importance of people telling their own stories, as evidenced by this line from Hamilton: "Who lives/Who dies/Who tells your story?"
Despite the controversy, Yamotahari’s performance is outstanding.
From the musical’s opening number, he’s got an infectious energy that pulls the audience into the world of Washington Heights. Born in Iran, the actor's family lived in France and Canada before moving to the U.S. While his immigrant experience is not identical to that of Usnavi, it is an experience that's at the heart of In the Heights.
Not choosing a Latino lead may have been a misstep, but it wasn’t the first. That distinction goes to the decision to mount this particular show in the first place. Why? Well, it's poorly matched with Phoenix Theatre’s over-the-top showmanship, a quality that’s far better suited to works like Spamalot and Hello Dolly.
As Miranda wrote it, In the Heights is all about the struggle – for identity, for acceptance, for community. Usnavi, like local salon owner Daniela, is struggling to carve out a livelihood. Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest, is struggling to save enough money for an apartment beyond the barrio. Nina, the first in her family to attend college, is struggling to meet her parents’ high expectations. And Benny, the story’s sole black character, is struggling with racism in unexpected places.
Unfortunately, the struggle gets lost in Phoenix Theatre’s take. Where there should be subtlety, it's splashy. Characters become caricatures.
Choreography by Nick Flores, an ensemble member in the show, feels contrived – as if producers for any number of dance-based reality shows are standing in the wings goading dancers on. It makes the show look like a string of dance numbers trying to stave off interruptions by poignant dramatic moments.
Cari Sue Smith's costume design takes the mismatched bargain store styles of the Broadway production too far. Chanel Bragg's Carla gets faux-leopard booties instead of pumps and Lynzee Foreman's Daniela sports not only cleavage, but a neckline that leaves big bits of bra showing. Instead of conveying their economic hardships, Smith's costume choices reinforce tired old stereotypes about working-class women.
Johanna Carlisle's Abuela Claudia should serve as a central character whose power is slowly revealed throughout the show until it reaches a dramatic climax at the musical’s conclusion. But she borders on being a bull in a china shop. With exaggerated facial expressions and a walk that overplays the frailties of aging, Abuela Claudia distracts from the story, instead of adding to it.
It’s not the first time Phoenix Theatre has reduced a complicated, moving narrative into a showy song-and-dance fest with performances that clutter the emotional landscape. It happened with Pippin back in 2014, when the main character’s struggles to push back against his royal roots got lost in a sexed-up story that subjugated story to sparkle.
Fortunately, several vocal performances really stand out in this production – especially those of Christopher Brasfield (Benny), Alyssa Chiarello (Vanessa), and Noellia Hernandez (Nina). They’re strong singers who do more than just nail their notes. Under Alan Ruch’s musical direction, they use Miranda’s music and lyrics to authentically convey their characters’ emotions.
Despite casting issues and production excesses, In the Heights is worth seeing if you're a serious theater fan eager to explore the contemporary Broadway canon, or you have an appreciation for works that prompt dialogue around immigration-related issues. It's not a Valley theater staple, like Annie or Les Miserables. And it’s got a much-needed message for today’s tumultuous political times.
Phoenix Theatre performs In the Heights through Sunday, October 2. Tickets start at $30, and are available through 602-254-2151 or www.phoenixtheatre.com.
Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version.