"In the Heights" stumbles but "Peter Pan" soars

I guess expectations really are everything. A few weeks ago, if you'd asked me which production I anticipated most during the month of May, I'd have said In the Heights. I didn't catch the Tony-winning musical during its New York run, and I was anxious to see the merengue-and-salsa sensation that inspired plenty of chatter about the rebirth of the Broadway musical. Meanwhile, the U.S. premiere of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, playing in San Francisco after a smash run in London, sounded like a gimmicky version of a show I'd already seen plenty of times, thank you very much.

Well, so much for knowing what to expect. Turns out that

In the Heights is a pleasant but deeply conventional show I've nearly forgotten within a matter of days. Peter Pan, meanwhile, is a huge amount of fun — the kind of production that's liable to reduce even devout cynics into grinning fools.

Peter Pan's 3-D effects wowed the audience.
Kevin Berne
Peter Pan's 3-D effects wowed the audience.

Details

In the Heights
Through June 13 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (at Mason), S.F. $30-$99; 551-2000 or www.shnsf.com.

Peter Pan
Through Aug. 29 in Embarcadero Plaza (Clay and Drumm), S.F. $30-$125; 1-888-PPANTIX or www.peterpantheshow.com.

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In the Heights begins promisingly enough. The brilliant opening number introduces us to the denizens of an unassuming corner of Washington Heights, a largely Dominican barrio in the northern reaches of Manhattan. (As one character puts it, she grew up thinking that her home was "at the top of the world, when the world was just a subway map.") The setting provides lots of opportunities for the talented composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also starred in the original Broadway production) to explore styles of music that get little play on the Great White Way. Yet even as the show abounds with energetic hip-hop, the story would've seemed creaky back in the days of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Usnavi (Kyle Beltran) is the gee-whiz hero who owns the corner bodega. He silently pines for the local siren, Vanessa (Sabrina Sloan), who works at the salon next door. Meanwhile, Nina (Arielle Jacobs) has just returned from her first year at Stanford, where she's managed to flunk out despite being the barrio's resident nerd. Then there's Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora), the wise old owl who dispenses loving aphorisms and home-cooked meals in roughly equal measure. (When it's revealed in Act I that she isn't taking her meds, you get one guess about what happens to her in Act II.)

None of these people would be out of place on Sesame Street. In the Heights presents a perfectly cloying vision of urban life in America, with no real acknowledgment of the complexity and hardship of life in a lower-income neighborhood. Instead, this barrio is chock-full of cockeyed optimists. And why not? The play creates a world in which you can win the lottery and fall in love as easily as you can buy a cup of coffee. I don't demand gritty realism from my musicals — if that were the case, I wouldn't like musicals at all — but at least Brigadoon seems fully aware of its own nonsense.

The show's aggressive cheesiness is a shame, because it's staged with an enormous amount of flair. The Act I finale, which involves the entire cast dancing through a New York City blackout, is a stunning way to send the audience into intermission. Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography is almost reason enough to buy a ticket. Just don't expect any kind of sophistication when the characters aren't singing or dancing — for that, you'll need to turn to a kids' show on the Embarcadero.

If your exposure to Peter Pan goes no further than the 1953 Disney cartoon; the 1954 Broadway musical; or Steven Spielberg's 1991 travesty, Hook, you may be surprised by J.M. Barrie's 1904 original play. Disney ran with its slapstick elements but mostly ignored its essential sadness; Spielberg turned that sadness into his trademark brand of mush. Barrie, however, was acutely aware that to remain a boy forever — "careless, innocent, heartless" — was nothing worth crowing about.

Melancholic as the script may be, no one will attend this particular production to consider the sorrows of eternal youth. It's all about the 3-D. When Peter (Nate Fallows) and Wendy (Abby Ford) rise out of the Darling nursery and into the night sky, they fly into a three-dimensional rendering of Edwardian London displayed on a giant 360-degree screen. It's a thrilling effect (and I say that as someone who is usually underwhelmed by the third dimension in movies).

People are apt to complain, of course. They'll complain that Tinker Bell (Itxaso Moreno) looks like a crazy punk and gets on everyone's nerves, but Tinker Bell is supposed to be nasty and annoying. They'll complain that Barrie's script, as adapted by Tanya Ronder, gets pretty short shrift. And they're right about that — this production goes for spectacle at the expense of some of the play's quieter, more thoughtful moments. For me, however, director Ben Harrison's ingenious use of the overhead screen is one spectacle that's entirely worth the distraction. And not everything is high-tech: One of the production's many earthbound effects is a giant crocodile made of wooden coathangers.

Kids will adore the show. Adults will likely adore it even more. As Barrie himself might have pointed out, age tends to deaden our responsiveness to sensation, making it increasingly tough to experience elemental stuff like wonder and delight. But I was delighted. At times, I was even transported. I didn't even roll my eyes when Tinker Bell came roaring back to life. Peter Pan reduced me to a grade-A sucker, and for once I was happy to get taken for a ride.

 
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