I appreciated the characters (all living near a corner in Washington Heights, almost all Latino) were in situations that felt real to me. But what do I know about that? I'm White, Jewish, and I grew up in L.A.- I don't know anything about New York's Latino culture from first-hand experience. Was the book configured to make white, middle-class theater-goers like myself feel good about these characters or do they really reflect the realities of people in the Heights? The audience was suspiciously non-diverse for this city- even at the theater, which only solidified my suspicions that this may be a show that's more feel-good than feels real (if you want to see the antithesis of that, go see Fela!). Still, I enjoyed it, even though this kind of thing often makes me uncomfortable.
What saves the show from being something truly awful (ala The Lion King) is the diversity of characters and their flaws, which gives the show a feeling of authenticity, even if it's fleeting. Elise Santora, who plays the neighborhood's aging matriarch, is sweet yet strong. Nina, played by Arielle Jacobs, drops out of Stanford and feels an acute sense of shame she couldn't cut it in the big leagues. Rogelio Douglas Jr.'s Benny is well aware that being black makes him forever on the outside, no matter how entwined he is in the lives of the family at the center of the story. There are three generations represented by the cast, who each have a different take on the neighborhood and its denizens. These characters, who sometimes come close to stereotypes but never crossed that line for me, are really the show's strength and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda does an excellent job of delineating them as distinct individuals through the songs and book. The people onstage come across as people you may actually know.
The music is good, but it sounds mostly like 80's style, feel-good, early Beastie Boys. There's nothing with an edge in the entire score, which is another indicator that In the Heights is more Spring Awakening than West Side Story. Sadly, there is only one number with a Reggaeton beat in the entire show and it's pretty watered down. I do know this- go into any largely Latino neighborhood in the U.S. right now and Reggaeton is the soundtrack of the street. Add to this one or two salsa-flavored numbers, and a couple of Bernsteinesque/West Side Story-flavored ballads and you have an idea of what the music sounds like. It's good if not instantly memorable (with the exception of one stand-out ballad), and delivered extremely well- especially by Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who does sound more than a little like the Beasties' Mike D, not least in the way he throws out a rhyme.
The set is vibrant, the cast is solid with the exception of one dancer who may have been a last minute sub, who seemed behind everyone all night and unsure of her marks. There are now discounted tickets available for the remaining performances on Goldstar. I recommend this one.