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Curtains up, hit ‘The Heights’

In the beauty salon, "In the Heights": Lexi Lawson, Isabel Santiago, Arielle Jacobs, Genny Lis Padilla. ©Chelsea Lauren 2010

By Bob Hicks

If the theater is truly the Fabulous Invalid, is any subsection of it any more fabulously ailing than the Broadway musical — and more of a fabulously unlikely survivor?

Before last night’s opening of the eagerly anticipated touring production of In the Heights at Portland’s Keller Auditorium, the last musical Mr. Scatter had seen was the Oregon Shakespeare Festival‘s glowing revival of She Loves Me, the masterful, small-scale 1963 romantic comedy by Joe Masteroff, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. (Mr. Scatter wrote about it here, and Mrs. Scatter expanded admirably on it, and the appeal of musicals in general, here.)

On the surface there’s not a whole lot of connection between She Loves Me and In the Heights, the 2008 Tony winner that Mr. Scatter took in with Oscar/Dennis. She Loves Me is a delicate love story based on a 1937 Hungarian play, Miklos Laszlo’s Parfumerie, and in style, sensibility and musical association it harks back to the heyday of central European operetta. In the Heights, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, is a not-so-delicate love story that bursts with the Dominican-American flavor of Manhattan’s Washington Heights and takes its musical cues from hip-hop, soul, and the Caribbean sounds of salsa and meringue.

Still, the Broadway musical feeds largely upon itself — that’s both a weakness and an enduring strength — and as She Loves Me smoothly incorporated aspects of earlier musical forms, so does In the Heights echo some of the successes of Broadway Past. It represents a particularly successful response to the dilemma that producers, writers and composers routinely face: Broadway audiences want to see something different, but not that different.

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