I was aware of the completely sold-out run last year at the Southwark Playhouse (I found out the hard way, having been unable to secure a ticket in time). I was aware that most of the (then) West End cast of The Book of Mormon had attended a matinee at Southwark last year, and all came away thoroughly impressed. I was aware that Andrew Lloyd Webber had visited Southwark and enjoyed his evening at In The Heights. But even with these high expectations and premonitions, this unrestrained and almost ridiculously energetic musical caught me by complete surprise and, as the well-worn cliché would have it, it took my breath away.
Apparently the show has changed so much that only three words of the very first version of In The Heights remains: “En [sic] Washington Heights”. It’s clear to me that the show has been worked on and revised repeatedly in order to reach the exuberant, flowing and dynamic production it has become, with doses of poignancy and sincerity included – though I am not entirely sure whether the calmer moments are more for the benefit of the audience, who are given space to breathe after the many vibrant numbers, or for the benefit of the cast, who are pushed to the borders of what is humanly possible in terms of live singing and dancing. I strongly suspect the benefit is mutual.
The plot is not, let’s be honest, entirely believable. A group eulogy made me chuckle when it should not have done. But then, I may have gotten away with it – even in a state of bereavement there is room for positive thinking and memories of happy times. However, that the community should suddenly come into a large pot of money was, frankly, a lazy solution by the librettists to the problems encountered by the South American immigrants in New York City. Equally implausible is the idea that the community is strengthened by the wads of cash – in the real world, more often than not, a large injection of unearned dollars ends up threatening to tear close friendships apart.
This pales into insignificance, however, in the choreography and the largely fast-paced score. The problem, for want of a better noun, is that in its full-flow, I didn’t know where to look. There would be a couple doing their dance in one corner, someone else doing another dance in another corner, the ensemble going for it in the centre of the stage, and a dialogue through song – sometimes rapped – all at once. I thought of Christopher Boone, the autistic teenager in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, who found the hustle and bustle of London Paddington Station so very difficult to handle, and realised what it must be like to have a multisensory attack.
Unlike Christopher, though, the experience left me exhilarated rather than exhausted. Usnavi (Sam McKay) is electric in the lead role – the etymology of his unusual name, once finally revealed, is devastatingly hilarious. Lily Fraser (who has the resemblance of a young Halle Berry), as Nina, a university dropout (or is she?), has both strong vocals and impeccable stage presence, as does David Bedella as Kevin, Nina’s protective father. The biggest laughs, though, come from Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s Daniela, the no-nonsense hair salon proprietor, who steals the show. Daniela is a caricature, for sure, and absurdly melodramatic – but highly lovable too.
Hip-hop and Latino music are not often heard in musical theatre, so it’s a novelty and a pleasure to hear something different. It is a testament to the skill of composer Lin-Manuel Miranda that though the lyrics are liberally sprinkled with Spanish words and phrases, the narrative is not lost on those of us who only ever learned to communicate “en Ingles”.
The collective dance numbers are so convincing it’s difficult not to feel you really are in a “carnaval del barrio”, and it’s almost impossible to sit still whilst the celebratory atmosphere continues to build until its suitably joyful and radiant finale. If the floor of the stage could generate energy, the Kings Cross Theatre would be selling electricity back to the National Grid. “Do what you can where you are,” I once heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu preach, a sermon that the characters in this show live by with resilience and heart. In The Heights is an astonishing achievement: if this is the future of musical theatre, then it’s an exciting time to be alive to experience it.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Welcome to Washington Heights, where life’s a struggle but the streets are jumping to the irresistible rhythms of love, passion, hopes and dreams. This smash-hit, Tony Award-winning musical is a joyously uplifting tale of young love in a community on the brink of change, set in one bustling neighbourhood where everyone knows everybody, and the breeze carries the sweet sounds of three generations of music.
Back to spice up London following its hugely acclaimed, sell-out season at the Southwark Playhouse, In The Heights is a thrilling evening of unforgettable songs and amazing choreography infused with the scorching rhythms and vibrant energy of a Manhattan heatwave. A word-of-mouth sensation on Broadway that had audiences coming back time and time again, this life-affirming story will enthral and delight audiences of all ages.
IN THE HEIGHTS
King’s Cross Theatre
Good’s Way (by King’s Boulevard), London, N1C 4UR
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday 8.00pm
Saturday 8.30pm, Sunday 6.00pm