October 05, 2015
After winning 4 Tony Awards in 2008 including Best Musical, Best Choreography and Best Original Score, In the Heights returns to London after a successful run at Southwark Playhouse last year... But does it capture the spirit of the original Broadway hit and continue to pulse with infectious energy?
It’s a fascinating setup that greets guests as they enter the venue, a mocked up train station waiting room. In the Heights shares its premises with the hugely popular The Railway Children and impressively, the old fixtures and fittings that cast punters back into the 1900s have been ably transformed with a few posters and graffiti-laden low-hanging signs into a New York subway station. Because of the unique staging of The Railway Children, guests are seated either side of a central stage for In The Heights, with each and every person afforded a brilliant view from their respective ‘platform’.
The stage itself is relatively sparse upon first viewing; a grocery store with living accommodation and a balcony to the left, the doors of a taxi firm and hairdressers to the right. Should a scene take place in one of these locations, a few basic props are laid out in the round – well, more of a horizontal strip to be honest – and one has to use their imagination to fully bring the play to life. Yes, it’s stripped down from its Broadway debut but in many ways, it feels all the larger for it, allowing the storyline to shine through.
The musical is an ensemble, focusing on seven or eight central characters. Amongst them, Usnavi runs the grocery store and has eyes for Vanessa, a worker at the salon who dreams of escaping to her own downtown apartment. Meanwhile, Nina returns from Stanford only to tell her parents, the owners of the taxi company, that she has dropped out. She then falls in love with Benny, who works for her father, which causes even more complications amongst the community of Washington Heights. When somebody wins $96,000 in the lottery though, it becomes apparent that thise close knit group may very well be on the verge of change.
Naturally, it’s the story that ensures the musical is as effective as it is but the first thing to grab you as the production begins is undoubtedly the music and lyrics from Lin-Manuel Miranda, something of a wunderkind in the American musical theatre scene. Indeed, he not only originally took on the role of Usnavi himself but has since gone on to write the book, music and lyrics (as well as star) in Hamilton, a Broadway smash-hit which Barack Obama has not only seen once but is intending to see again. The beauty of Miranda’s work is in his modernisation of the musical; yes, there are stirring songs throughout but there are also rap segments and a constant thrum of hip-hop that gives the musical a clinical edge when combined with the intense and immaculately choreographed dance sequences.
The work of every member of the cast involved in this musical – including Olivier award-winner David Bedella and former Sugababe Jade Ewen - is top notch and it wouldn’t do to highlight individual performances. For In the Heights is an ensemble masterclass in every department - lighting, sound, direction - and if you want a high end, high energy production then this is the show to see. It’s loud, it’s proud and it’s a spirited love letter to the small town communities that help keep our nations afloat. See it whilst you can.
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By Henry Fosdike