Lin-Manuel Miranda, with book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes, put a lot into his first show, 2008’s In the Heights—which in retrospect is kind of amusing, as if he thought, as novices in any art form tend to do, that he might not get to do a second one. (No one reading this needs to be told he followed it with Hamilton, do you?) He filled his heart-on-sleeve stage portrait of his home neighborhood, Washington Heights toward the north end of Manhattan, with practically every incident short of an alien invasion, from euphoria to tragedy—in consecutive musical numbers, no less. (Even West Side Story, Heights’ most apparent predecessor in using death and its repercussions as plot elements in a musical, darkens in mood gradually, not suddenly.) Seattle Rep’s current production opened November 23rd, with the show’s ambitiously complex storytelling nimbly clarified by director May Adrales and its emotional punch dialed high by the large cast.
The action of Heights covers just two sweltering summer days and the following morning, but major life changes are in store for the close-knit residents and business owners on one street corner: People leave and return, or never leave, or try to leave but can’t, or plan to leave but don’t; romance blossoms, both opposed and encouraged; family ties are tested, good fortune strikes, dreams fail, eras end. Or maybe don’t. There’s a great first-act-finale—a fistfight and a blackout and a riot and fireworks. The score’s soaked in salsa and propelled by rap, the book’s overflowing with ethnic pride, and the Rep’s production is also a powerhouse of dance thanks to William Carlos Angulo’s choreography.
Yet Miranda’s seeming determination to leave no button unpushed resulted in a warmly satisfying celebration rather than a pandering manipulation. The audience no less than the cast performed brilliantly Wednesday night: gasping at the plot twists, cheering the big numbers and sobbing, audibly, when called to. This is not to disparage shows that don’t wring one dry, but naturally there’s something cathartic about mass shared emoting; it’s as though we all get swept up together in one auditorium-sized hug—and these days, when the catalyst is art rather than ideology and the shared emotions are joy and mourning rather than fear and hatred, that’s of incalculable benefit. That In the Heights enables this while presenting characters and a milieu that are, to say the least, underrepresented on the musical-comedy stage is its signal strength and value—and the Rep’s production confirms further that this is one of the great and necessary musicals so far this century.
Ends Dec. 30. Times and prices vary. Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center, 155 Mercer St.; 206.443.2222; seattlerep.org