You knew that rap music had gone mainstream the first time you saw and heard it in a McDonald’s commercial. Here were a bunch of clean cut kids extolling the virtues of quarter pounders with cheese, dancing and rhyming to a bass beat that can shatter glass.

At the DPAC (Durham Performing Arts Center) we witnessed the further middle class acceptance of this musical form that began as an urban, African-American style, with the presentation of the musical In the Heights, winner of the 2008 Tony Award for best musical.

This is really quite a logical, musical and textual adaptation of this new (not really) art form of half-spoken half-sung poetry delivered with a somewhat predictable rhythmic and harmonic background: a 21st century version of opera’s use of recitative to move the storyline along without resorting to (gasp!) spoken words. Composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda along with Quiara Alegria Hudes (text) unofficially take credit as the first to use rap in a major Broadway production as an integrated part of the story. Perhaps so as not to offend, or to retain a universal appeal, the genuinely well-realized use of this effect is somewhat incongruously paired with a very old-fashioned and not very original storyline, thus the tag line below the title: “about home, family and finding where you belong.”

The set is quite realistic and magnificent. The George Washington Bridge towers over a typical New York street in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan.  A bodega (small grocery store), a hair salon and a car service are the stores and the workers associated with them that encompasses the story. The opening number, “In the Heights” is a microcosm of the music and the story: great dancing, lots of energy and swirling colors, Latin music and love of and allegiance to “the neighborhood.” We slowly meet all of the rather large cast of characters, including Nina, the girl who did good by getting a full scholarship to Stanford. Her return from her first year is filled with bad news regarding her eligibility to continue in school. The old “I want it better for my child” immigrant’s creed runs deep and is pretty much the same for all nationalities and causes much consternation with Nina’s parents who sold their business to pay for tuition.

There are several other subplots, most of them involving either wanting to get out of “the heights,” or reliving previous good times in the neighborhood, or, of course, attempts to get the sexiest girl. Eventually we get to issues of families not accepting their child’s choice of mate because “he is not one of us,” as well as neighborhoods changing and dying and people coming to the profound realization that it is people who count: how many times have we heard this before? 

In the Heights is a sprawling, generously endowed collection of music and dance (12 songs in each of the two acts), and for the most part keeps you entertained and enthralled with frenetic movement and energy – for the moment. It quickly dissipates and for the life of me I was not able to recall a really memorable song or scene the next day. That is not to say that there was any aspect poorly done, or that my attention flagged during the show. The music was artfully composed, arranged and performed, and the singers ranged from excellent to superb; it just had the feeling and texture of fast food. Luckily for the producers of In the Heights there are millions of people who eat up this kind of nourishment.   

The show continues through February 27. For details, see the sidebar.