Commentary & Opinion
3:45 pm
Thu September 20, 2012

Bob Goepfert - "In the Heights" at Cohoes Music Hall

Last month C&R Productions declared if they didn’t raise $75,000 immediately they would close and stop producing theater. They raised almost $100,000.  

I like to think of their current production of “In the Heights” at Cohoes Music Hall as a thank you present for those who to help save them. 

“In the Heights” is terrific theater that is both entertaining and heartwarming.  The music and dance are exciting and the everyday struggles of the characters are touching and real.   This is not a work about large issues.  Instead it is a work about the daily struggles of those who dream about a better future.

To my mind, it is an important local production because in a market that relies on familiar titles to attract audiences “In the Heights” is a relatively unknown work - even though it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2008.

Too, because of the demands of casting an ethnocentric show means “In the Heights” is not to going to be a show produced with great frequency on a local level.  That’s to say nothing about the challenge of finding a dozen performers of all ages who can sing, dance and act with great skill. At Cohoes most of the cast are aspiring professional actors from New York City who bring a fresh vitality to production.

Though not a flawless production it is well-performed by the talented performers who apparently have a love for the material and a connection to underdog themes of the musical.  The small Cohoes stage sometimes interferes with the flow of the play and if it shrinks the scope of this New York neighborhood it compensates by adding an intimacy to the work that you will never experience in a large theater.

Because the musical is about the problems of an ethnic minority living in the Washington Heights section of New York City many have compared the show to “West Side Story,” a 1950s musical about a Spanish-speaking minority struggling in New York City. 

Indeed, in both shows cultures as well as characters are defined by the score.  “In the Heights” the music is ranges from Latin-influenced high energy ensemble numbers to engaging narrative rap. There are several tender ballads that add an emotional resonance to the characters. 

Because “In the Heights” is told with a youthful point of view and has a contemporary rock sound many see elements of “Rent” in the show.   Though the mostly Latin sounds of “In the Heights” separate the two, the importance of the music to deliver the story and heighten the emotions is the same in both works.

However, if comparisons must be made - the work that “In the Heights” most resembles is Elmer Rice’s 1929 play “Street Scene.”  (Kurt Weill later converted the play to an opera.) This is because both use the drama in the lives of the people who live there to tell the story of a New York City neighborhood.

Their flaws are also similar as the plots over-simplification a complex situation, while each tells more than their frail frame of the play can support.  However, both find the truth about how when living a life of economic hardship the only thing you have to rely on is family and friends.  It was true in 1929. It’s true today.

“In the Heights” is filled with stand-out performances with each member of the large cast having their own moment to shine.  You relish the wonderful singing and enjoy the passionate dancing.  There is also a lot of humor.  However you remember the people and their struggles.

There is no character in show that is culturally compatible with life in upstate New York.  Yet at show’s end you feel you shared two and a half hours with people you know and, more important, people for whom you care. 

That’s the magic of theater.  

“In the Heights” at Cohoes Music Hall.  Through Sept. 23.  Performances Thursday- Sunday. Tickets $25-$35.  237-5858, www.cohoesmusichall.com.

Bob Goepfert is the arts editor for the Troy Record.

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