“I used to think we lived at the top of the world / When the world was just a subway map,” sings Nina Rosario (Sophia Macías) on “When You’re Home,” one of the standout tracks of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. “And the one-slash-nine/ Climbed a dotted line to my place.”
“There’s no 9 train now,” her love interest Benny (Alex Nicholson) reminds her.
“Right,” Nina replies.
This snippet of lyrics does a lot of work to establish the setting—and core tension—of the Tony Award-winning In the Heights, which was Miranda’s first Broadway musical, before Hamilton. Set in Washington Heights, a Manhattan neighborhood that’s also known as Little Dominican Republic, the musical centers on a group of Latino immigrant small business owners and neighbors. It tracks these characters through 48 fateful hours in the early ’00s, as they grapple with rising rents, developing romances, family betrayals, a heat wave power outage, and one winning lottery ticket totaling $96,000.
Lurking beneath these surface issues, though, is one underlying question that comes out again and again in the dual-language songs the performers rap and sing: If they can’t rely on their newfound home of Washington Heights to stay the same (there’s no 9 train now, remember?), would it have been better if they (or their parents) had stayed in their country of origin?
That question gets a resounding answer by the end of the musical and getting there is a hell of a lot of fun. Powerful songs, intricate set design, and electrifying choreography from William Carlos Angulo helps to fill out a textured world inside the production, and I wish even more time could be spent on these details—rather than on two will-they-or-won’t-they romances.
Another point that sticks occurs in the second act when—fed up by blistering temperatures and no electricity—the characters host a block party, or carnaval del barrio, to blow off steam. Different characters sing about neighborhood parties back home in the Dominican Republic or Cuba or Puerto Rico, and proudly wave flags. It’s a prompt for the audience to applaud the diversity on display—and applaud we did. But as is so often the case at cultural events in Portland, I found myself wishing I could see fans from these backgrounds in the Armory’s audience.
I hope Portland Center Stage’s run of In the Heights will reach some of the people it’s meant to celebrate. Regardless of your background, though, I can guarantee the buzzy musical numbers will play in your head long after the show ends. Oh, and I’ll go ahead and say it: This musical is way better than Hamilton.