Sam Woodhouse (director), Javier Velasco (choreographer) and at least half of San Diego – or so it would seem – have turned the San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Stage into a non-stop fireworks display.
One thing always bothered me about the musical Rent. Its heroes are artists, truly gifted people facing an economic wall. And I root for them with all my heart. But they have their art to keep them warm.
What about non-artists, culturally diverse people, facing the same threat of eviction? In this sense, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes’ musical’s a way uptown response to Rent.
The “heights” are Washington Heights in Manhattan. The musical takes place in a three day period, before and after the fourth of July. It follows the fates of non-Anglos soon to be exiled by gentrification.
Each character has an individual voice, and a story often told in song. Some can irk, all have flaws, but somehow all come to matter in the larger canvas.
In the Heights isn’t a feel-good musical. Instead it’s about pinpointing that possibility amid random indifference and overwhelming chaos.
In hindsight Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical doesn’t look at all experimental. And if one applies a cookie cutter approach based on the musicals that preceded it, it doesn’t work at all. The male lead is a follower.
That’s 35-year-old Robert. He’s, at best, a half-made bed. Just a few clicks above a cipher, he’s decided to try marriage – or, at least open the door to that possibility – and, as a consequence, to try adulthood as well. Robert interviews five couples, all close friends, all apparently doing well. From afar, at least.
Put the play and Cygnet’s fine production back in 1970 and voila! Few, if any, musicals had dealt with the questions it raises about relationships and commitment (and in this sense it spawned the myriad musicals and plays that have considered nothing else!).
Sondheim wrote: “Broadway theatre has been for many years supported by upper-middle-class people with upper-middle-class problems.” They “want to escape that world when they go to the theater, and then here we are with Company talking about how we’re going to bring it right back in their faces.”
The opening night performance of Calvin Manson’s piece was shaky. But the words merit a hearing – and a heeding.
Artistic director of Ira Aldridge Repertory and author of several musicals and tributes to African-American greats, Manson went to the streets, sometimes in disguise. He interviewed the homeless, the bullied, the fearful, and the frank, like the man who kept an automatic weapon beneath his driver’s seat to avoid car-jacking, and the woman who dedicated her poem ‘to every woman who refuses to be defined,’ and old Sam, who speaks “for us who no longer can.”
Manson talked to the racially profiled and to the daughter whose mother died of crack (“murder by a slim needle…a stranger rifling through her blood, the virus pushing her skeleton through”). He converted the interviews into “Spoken Word” poetry.
The five-person cast performs with the voice and the body. As a result, a reading makes key points in different ways, from harangue, to dancing, to pain buried so deep it’s almost inaudible.