I’ve found it – my favourite musical of 2015.
“Gail, would you like to come and see [insert show here]? I know you don’t like musicals, but…” so begins almost every musical invitation from theatre friends. It’s not that I don’t like musicals, it’s just that I’m very picky on the ones that I do like. This year I’ve really enjoyed Thoroughly Modern Millie, Memphis, The Producers and Once – but they all pale into insignificance in the shadow of In The Heights. I’ve been dancing salsa and bachata for about 9 years, so for me, the music style is very familiar. At the What’s On Stage Awards in February, the original cast did a small showcase which left me half rapt with joy at what I was watching, and half in despair at what I’d missed when it was on at Southwark Playhouse. I have been waiting for this show to return for London ever since, and it didn’t disappoint.
It’s summer in Washington Heights, New York’s latino district. Everyone is just about getting by, but they’re surrounded by poverty and have been hit hard by the economic crisis. With money tight, businesses going under, properties being bulldozed for regeneration and power cuts becoming increasingly regular, low morale is starting to get the better of them. But there is hope, love, passion, flirting, dancing, and a sizeable lottery win: with nothing left to lose, the populace of this tight-knit neighbourhood dare to dream about the future.
Played in traverse at the Kings Cross Theatre (usually home to The Railway Children), it has that feeling of a story far more ancient – similar in staging to Greek theatre. From the lilting salsa soundtrack playing in the bar, I step into the auditorium which has a few bits of set at either end of the stage to suggest a shop, a flat, a taxi rank and a beauty salon, leaving plenty of space in between for flexibility of locations.
By far and away the strongest aspects of this show are the music and dancing. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cool fusion of latino and hiphop has the audience around me tapping their feet, and is a perfect backdrop for Drew McOnie’s exceptional choreography: salsa, merengue, reggaeton, contemporary, hiphop, and even the bewilderingly complex footwork of Cali-style are all delivered with energy and attitude. Both the solos and large ensemble pieces are jaw-droppingly good and the atmosphere is electric.
Sam Mackay reprises his role as Usnavi, oozing a cool demeanour, making light work of the irregular rhythms and colloquial Spanish in his songs, bouncing rhymes off Sonny (Cleve September) with effortless charisma. September matches him beat for beat, and the rapport between them is a real joy to watch. David Bedella (last seen in The Producers) makes for a fiercely proud father as Kevin Rosario who looks to sell his taxi business when his daughter cannot keep up with her college fees. This does incur the wrath of his hotheaded tiger of a wife, Camila (Josie Benson) who is determined to find another way – and heaven help anyone who tries to argue with her!
By contrast, their daughter Nina (Lily Frazer) exudes a real lightness and warmth, but also the complex range of emotions as she finds herself trapped in a vicious circle between ambition and funding. Jade Ewen is a self-assured Vanessa, slowly giving in to Usnavi’s tongue-tied advances. The progression in their love story feels far more real than the typical West End schmaltz, with endless stumbling blocks and hiccups. But the character that we all fall helplessly in love with is Eve Polycarpou as Abuela Claudia. Honorary Grandmother to all, she is brimming with affection, and is the much respected epicentre of their community. It is her trajectory through the show which has the most profound effect on the audience – it has been a long time since a musical moved me to tears.
Musical highlights include the salsatastic In The Heights, the punchy hiphop beats of 96,000, the beautiful harmonies of Blackout, subtle ballad Sunrise, and the explosively defiant Carnaval Del Barrio. I need to get myself another ticket to see this. It is truly deserving of its extension through until April and a great antidote to the cold miserable weather.
Now if this is the sort of thing pouring out Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical box of tricks, who do I have to harass for them to bring over Hamilton from Broadway?
In The Heights is on until 10th April 2016 at the King’s Cross Theatre, Goods Way, London, N1C 4UR. For tickets and more information, go to intheheightslondon.com/