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Culture Theater

High hopes

(Jeff Christensen/ap)


High hopes

In the Heights engagingly celebrates the American dream

Exuberant music that tugs at the heart and displays a constructive cultural message: Broadway doesn't get any better than In the Heights, a merengue musical celebrating on March 9 the anniversary of its opening in 2008.

Broadway is important not only to New Yorkers and tourists but to the entire country: What happens around Times Square rarely stays there. Camelot became the theme of the Kennedy administration, and In the Heights-current holder of the "Best Musical" Tony Award-suggests minority and immigrant advancement in the White House and national culture.

In the Heights centers on a hot July 3-5 in Washington Heights, Manhattan's Dominican-American neighborhood. Its tunes mix hip-hop, salsa, and merengue, the fast music with a 2/4 beat that originated in the Dominican Republic. The musical celebrates a particular corner of America where people struggle to make ends meet but care for each other. Family is important, and the particulars of Caribbean immigrant stories tap into our universal longings for love and belongingness, for being home.

Fast music goes with fast movement: Instead of emphasizing a few set pieces where everything stops, the ensemble cast provides plenty of background visuals even as entrancing songs dominate attention. Characters utter a few coarse words and two of them apparently spend an offstage night together outside of marriage, but that's relatively tame these days for New York and much of America. The neighborhood matriarch speaks and sings of paciencia y fe, patience and faith.

In this context that largely means faith in the American dream. The dream now includes hopes of lottery winnings, but it will still be a good one for dissemination throughout the country next year when In the Heights becomes a Universal film. And most of all, this musical is emotionally engaging fun.