Seen Off Broadway: If good intentions made for great musical theater, than the hip-hop and Latino-inflected In the Heights would be the best show since Oklahoma! But, they don’t. Not every musical need be edgy and with-it, but In the Heights has a spongy-sweet marshmallow center that is difficult to swallow for two hours. My sympathies to set designer Anna Louizos, who, for the second time this season, has found herself at odds with her material. Her complexly engineered work on the flop High Fidelity overwhelmed what should have been a show told in simple vignettes; here, the naturalism of her recreation of a typical street in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, complete with a bodega, car service company, and A-train subway entrance, clashes with the cotton-candy depiction of its residents, all of whom are boringly virtuous in the extreme. It is an outstanding set, one I never tired of looking at; the backing curtain, a mockup of the George Washington Bridge with functioning blinking lights, is inspired, and I like how the scrim-like set material allows you to see into the second-floor windows of their inhabitants. If only the people we see were a lot more interesting, then there might be a show worthy of the attention the producers (of Avenue Q and Rent) have lavished on the design, the biggest I’ve seen at the 37 Arts. But the puppet-driven Avenue Q is by far the more believable production.
The music and lyrics, by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who co-stars as the good-natured bodega owner Usnavi, a name that gets its own cutesy storyline), and book, by Quiara Alegria Hudes, attempt to dispel negative stereotypes about Latinos. Looting during a summer blackout is alluded to (strangely, given how peaceable the 2003 New York blackout was) but there’s not a drug dealer or gang-banger in sight, and outside of a few curse words and some cat-calling toward the ladies everyone behaves themselves. Positive stereotypes, however, are just as destructive for drama, particularly when the plot seems to have been exhumed from a decades-old TV sitcom. A lottery ticket is won, and the proceeds are to be divvied up when the winner drops dead (I’m not telling you anything you won’t figure out within five minutes). Will they go to Nina (Mandy Gonzalez), who has dropped out of Stanford to keep her upwardly mobile parents, the car service owners (John Herrera and a criminally underused Priscilla Lopez), from going under financially? Usnavi? Another member of the talented ensemble, who sing and dance with as much gusto as possible under the circumstances? Well before Act I concludes, the show, all heart and no soul, and heavily padded with extraneous numbers, starts dragging. The sugar rush to my head ended with a crash before the intermission concluded, and I sat limp in my seat for Act II, wondering only “what nothing was going to happen next,” as Pauline Kael once wrote of a bad movie.
Thomas Kail’s direction is no help reviving things. What spice there is provided by the designers. Paul Tazewell’s street-ready costumes, particularly for the salon girls, flavor the stage. And Acme Sound Partners really knows how to rock the house; there are some appealing songs, just not nearly enough narrative content to prop them up. LD Jason Lyons does typically fine work, particularly during the blackout (which requires some subtle illumination to pull off) and shoot-the-moon Fourth of July fireworks display that is In the Heights at its most show-offy. A shame Hudes’ book didn’t dare to set off a few firecrackers.
One of the nice things about going to the theater is the opportunity to learn new things. For example, not much is known about the 15th century German who invented the printing press, which about 550 years later made columns like this possible. Gutenberg! The Musical!, which is running at the Actors’ Playhouse, helpfully fills in some of the blanks. Did you know that the love of his life, and inspiration, was named Helvetica? And that a conspiracy initiated by a deranged monk led to his burning at the stake for heresy? I didn’t, either—but so it goes in this rollicking comic musical, where Bud (Christopher Fitzgerald) and Doug (Jeremy Shamos), authors of this would-be hit, try to convince us, the potential backers, that Gutenberg! The Musical! is ripe for a glossy Broadway production. (The actual authors, who hail from the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe in New York, are Scott Brown and Anthony King.)
To make their theater dreams come true, the two wear many hats—literally, about 30, which come on and off as they slip in and out of their show’s characters, which include a few drunks and “Yet Another Woman.” I thought another show last season, also about struggling theater artists trying to put on a production, had worn down this vein of satire, but Gutenberg! The Musical! comes up with a few nifty angles of its own, including dead-on spoofs of “charm songs” used to highlight supporting roles (“Look, a ‘charm song,’” my wife whispered me to me when we saw In the Heights two nights later) and those crowd-wowing, Act I-closing songs that have become annoyingly standard in musicals since Wicked’s “Defying Gravity.” I would have dispensed with the intermission, during which some of the fun dissipates, but director Alex Timbers otherwise cracks the whip on the two capable and charming performers and the show, and its many valiant-to-desperate attempts to rhyme with “Gutenberg,” never wears out its welcome.
With no set to speak of, just a piano on stage left, there is no set designer, and the actors (and the Actors’ Playhouse) need no sound reinforcement. Costume designer Emily Rebholz gets credit for the many baseball caps. The silliness is entirely accentuated by Tyler Micoleau’s simple but varied revue lighting, which puts the show through its paces. To quote my favorite example of its rhyming, Gutenberg! The Musical! is darn-tootin’-berg a good evening’s entertainment. —Robert Cashill