The 2008 Broadway musical "In the Heights," the story of a mostly Latino community struggling to both move up and stay together, is now in its waning days as a touring attraction. Since the show last was in Chicago — in late 2009 — the initial, Broadway-caliber touring cast has been quietly replaced by nonunion actors, most of whom are very young and inexperienced. And for anyone who experienced the thrilling visual impact of Anna Louizos' romantic version of the tiptop of Manhattan on Broadway, the current, reduced setting feels rather more like everybody left the neighborhood and headed for the Legoland version of Washington Heights.
But as nonunion "re-creations" go (and I don't think nonunion tours should be going anywhere near a market the size of Chicago without full disclosure), this one is better than most. There are the usual compromises in the older character roles and a few severely limited vocal performances. But Virginia Cavaliere, the current, sweet-voiced Nina and a very different type from the willowy actresses who've played this role in the past, is actually the only Nina I've ever seen who is fully believable as a college student struggling to live up to the expectations of those in the neighborhood who love her. And though the overly hesitant Perry Young doesn't fully grab control of the show as the narrator Usnavi (no one but Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music and lyrics for himself, has ever been fully able to do that), there is an admirable poignancy to his performance. As a sadder and more contemplative Usnavi than any of the others I've seen, Young shows us a man who loves everything about his home and the people who surround it, keying into one of the central messages of this musical, wherein a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes accompanies Miranda's magnificent music and lyrics.
That clunky book was never even close to the equal of the score. The central tension between Nina's leaving school after finding herself on probation — hardly the end of the world and a negotiable state of affairs — and her family's making pressure-filled sacrifices to coax her back was never especially believable. Nobody, it seems, has the number for Stanford University, even though a little chat with the academic authorities (not to mention the financial aid department) would surely be in order before the liquidation of the entire family business. This whole plot device is lame, and it gets lamer for me with each viewing.
But Miranda's work goes in the precise opposite direction. His rap-fused songs, which I never tire of hearing, are joyous and emotional tributes to the fortitude of immigrants and their hand-built urban communities. Few composers working for Broadway today have a better understanding of the sound of working people, or the beat of their oft-restless souls. In this remarkable song suite, Miranda clearly understands the self-esteem provided by labor, as well as the deeply rooted pleasures of feeling, as a child, that you live in a supportive place at the top of the world, even if you just measure that world by a subway line. That depiction of Washington Heights is a beautiful metaphor in a show full of songs stuffed with them. And to her great credit, Cavaliere taps into the possibilities and the limitations of her character's world. So does Young. And, in the complicated role of Vanessa, so does Presilah Nunez, a very glamorous young performer who is more able than her predecessors to reveal a young woman as naive and afraid as she is confident and ambitious.
One hopes that Miranda will keep on what you might call the Studs Terkel track — setting ordinary America to music and forging work of substance — and won't get distracted by those dangerous Broadway trivialities. Even with the diminishment, "In the Heights" continues to please its vocal audience and honor its neighborhood.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $25-$75 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye