‘In the Heights’ sizzles across distant cultures

by Lindsay Nelson

Special To The Japan Times

I had a few reservations about the first Japanese production of “In the Heights,” the Broadway sensation nominated for 13 Tony awards in 2008.

For one, neither of the female leads playing Nina and Vanessa seemed to have much musical-theater experience. I also wondered whether the show’s very specific sense of place and culture — the predominantly Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City — could be conveyed by an all-Japanese cast singing in Japanese what was originally an English score melded with lots of Spanish.

Musicals can, of course, be successfully performed by anyone in any language. But when so much of the soul of a show involves a language and a culture utterly removed from the cast’s experience, can it still work?

Well, yes. This production of “In the Heights” is a testament to the power of a wonderful score, skilled choreography — and great ensemble energy. The show is electric from the very beginning, when a graffiti artist bursts onto the stage and leaps and twirls as he sprays his cans of paint into the air. As a group, the cast exudes joy and passion to the point that I genuinely wanted to get up and start dancing with them.

“In the Heights” is the creation of 34-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music and lyrics — for which he won a Tony — and originated the leading role of Usnavi, the owner of a small bodega.

The show ran on Broadway for almost three years and was incredibly popular. Everyone loved the Latin beats and fresh energy of the songs that paid homage to Broadway show tunes but breathed new life into the musical form, particularly Miranda’s freestyle rapping.

If some critics complained that the original 2009 book by Quiara Alegria Hudes (a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama-winner, for “Water by the Spoonful”) was a somewhat sanitized and sentimental version of barrio life, that didn’t seem to weaken the power of the show. Broadway doesn’t have to be realistic to have an impact.

“In the Heights” takes place over the course of three days in the Washington Heights district of northern Manhattan, bordered to the south by Harlem and to the west by the Hudson River. Narrating the action is the vibrant Usnavi, so named because a U.S. Navy ship was one of the first things his parents saw when they arrived in the United States. He’s in love with hairdresser Vanessa, who longs to leave the neighborhood and make a new life downtown.

Then there’s Nina, back home from her first semester at a prestigious college, who has some heavy news for her parents. She falls in love with Benny, who works in their taxi dispatch, but her father opposes the relationship because Benny is not Latino.

Meanwhile, Abuela Claudia (abuela means “grandmother” in Spanish) is the beloved matriarch of the whole community, while various other characters including the “piragua guy,” who sells shaved ice, the beauty-salon staff and Usnavi’s goofy cousin Sonny provide plenty of local flavor.

There’s nothing special about the story, which nonetheless has its fair share of loves and losses and assorted interpersonal dramas, but “In the Heights” is such a charming, high-energy show that I was willing to forgive its limitations.

And though Nina, played by Ayaka Umeda — a former member of the all-girl song-and-dance troupe AKB48 — and Vanessa (Chihiro Otsuka) don’t really have the vocal power or range to effectively project their solos, their pleasant voices pair nicely in duets. In contrast, pop singer Micro, of the local band Def Tech, brings more than enough energy and charisma (and freestyle rapping skills) to the role of Usnavi, while Yuya Matsushita, as Benny, has both the stage presence and the vocal range to pull off the character’s sometimes challenging songs.

The real standouts, though, are in the supporting cast. Beverly Maeda’s Abuela Claudia seems like comforting window-dressing until she delivers a show-stopping number near the end of the first act, bringing a poignancy and strength to the character that wasn’t apparent before. As Kevin, the conflicted father who wants the best for his daughter Nina in a changing world, veteran musical performer Motomu Azaki brings weight and powerful vocal chops to the story. Then there’s the actress-singer and TV personality Marcia, whose salon-owner Daniela is a bit of sassy fun who can also belt ‘em out better than almost anyone in the cast.

Above all, though, this production of “In the Heights” is a reminder of the universal power of music and dance. And as much as Miranda’s words (and wordplay) are an important part of its power, the rhythms and energy are so infectious that I found myself constantly smiling even when the meaning of the ultra-rapid Japanese freestyle rapping eluded me. Tokyo may be a long way from Washington Heights, but the magic of a good show transcends distance.

“In the Heights” plays at Bunkamura’s Theatre Cocoon through April 20. Tickets are ¥9,500 and can be purchased via intheheights.jp.