If there were a sub-genre of Musical Theatre known as Exuberant Dance Feel Good then In The Heights would be one of the exemplars of that sub-genre. Even the most cynical observer would be hard pressed to leave the production of In The Heights, now well into its run at the purpose-built King’s Cross Theatre, without a sense of warmth and contentment, if not outright joy. No surprises really – this is the coolest show in town.
The theatre itself is cool, with a funky foyer staffed by cool people, cool ushers to tear your ticket, and cool seats which manage to be quite comfortable and from each of which, or so it seemed, a good view of the stage action was provided. The traverse stage is also cool and suits the space perfectly; nearly all of the patrons are cool too. Even if you personally don’t feel cool, the ambience and buzz is quickly contagious, and when the beats start their arresting, energised assault, resistance to coolness is quite useless.
The original Broadway production, which starred composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, was enjoyable but largely forgettable, with a couple of central performances, including Miranda’s as Usnavi, which were very memorable. This production, directed by Luke Sheppard, is an altogether more cohesive production, generally better performed and gains nuclear lustre from the spirited and funky choreography from Drew McOnie. Where the Broadway version left one feeling luke-warm, this version leaves one feeling toasty. And smiling.
Partly, this is because the intimacy afforded by the King’s Cross Theatre enhances the narrative. Quiara Alegría Hudes has penned honest, raw and often painfully personal tales of lives lived on the streets of Washington Heights, in reasonably happy community bliss notwithstanding the ravages that poverty, crime and gentrification wreak upon them. There are many group scenes, but the story is generally propelled by small numbers of people. The closer you physically are to those people, the easier it is to grasp their measure, feel their highs and lows.
Put simply, a traverse setting really is perfect for In The Heights.
But the intimacy is only part of the reason for this production’s supremacy. The other reasons are the women in the cast and the choreography.
The women here are exceptionally good. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is phenomenal as Daniela, the hairdresser with a heart of gold, a body to marvel at, and a mouth as swift and sassy as her perfectly formed legs in any number of sharp routines. Acerbic and sexy in equal measure, Hamilton-Barritt electrifies the scenes she appears in but, despite such bravura bravado, has the ability to be touching and tender too. No Me Diga is pure delight. Her command in Carnaval Del Barrio is exhilarating, sensuous and hilarious. She is worth the whole evening.
Enough is the crowning achievement of Josie Benson’s Camilla. Wife to Kevin (a tortuous David Bedella) and mother to Lily Frazer’s Nina, Benson sails serenely under the radar for most of Act One. Indeed, she barely registers. This, though, turns out to be intentional: when her demure surface shatters over her husband’s intransigence about their daughter’s lover and future, the passionate, furious and protective she-lion who emerges is all the more impressive because she is so unexpected. Benson sings Enough the same way James Bond drives luxury cars: passionately, vigorously and at more than full throttle.
As Vanessa, Jade Ewen has perhaps the most difficult role. Her character, unlike her friends, dreams of a flat in the West Village and so she is a little on the outer. She is also the love interest for Usnavi although it is never quite clear that either of them are seriously thinking about a life together. Tony and Maria from West Side Story they are not. But Vanessa is a constant and charming presence and Ewen plays her beautifully, all optimism and possibility, so that when the duet between her and Usnavi finally arrives, it is delicious. Usnavi may not realise what he needs until it might almost be out of his reach, but the audience is clear enough about Vanessa’s true worth.
The nicest, most honest acting of the evening comes in the scene where Daniela tells Vanessa that she will co-sign the papers permitting her to rent her dream West Village property. It could be tritely sentimental, as indeed it was on Broadway, but here it is true and refreshing: two bonded friends, one bestowing a gift, the other realising her friend’s faith and commitment. In a world where poverty is as abundant as air, Daniela’s freely given guarantee is beyond value.
Eve Polycarpou is outstandingly good as the ripe, richly eccentric, grandmother to the Square, Abuela Claudia. Salt of the earth, still driven by love, hope and goodwill, Abuela is the true beating heart of the neighbourhood. She sings and dances with the gusto expected of an older woman who lives to love others. It is almost impossible not to well up over the scene where she reveals she has the winning lottery ticket and again in the scene where she explains how she will spend the money. Because of the brio Polycarpou brings to the role, two later scenes about her character are the show’s most touching.
Frazer’s Nina is, at first, a tightly coiled, slightly fearful woman, but one who radiates empathy. She has returned to her home, having dropped out of Stamford because the pressures of study and working long hours to pay the bills have defeated her. She knows her parents have scraped, saved and borrowed to educate her and she does not know how to face them. Frazer communicates all of this easily enough, and with a sassy firmness.
Her dalliance with Joe Aaron Reid’s tall, muscular but slightly dull Benny (one of her father’s employees, not from the Dominion Republic) becomes a version of the story of Maria and Tony from West Side Story (sans knives and mortal wounds). Kevin is implacably opposed to Benny, essentially because he is black. (The tensions this situation should reveal never really gel) Frazer sings nicely, but forces the top of her voice too often, especially in Act One. However, both Sunrise and Everything I Know in Act Two are splendidly, touchingly, beautifully sung.
Drew McOnie’s choreography is vibrant and vigorous, a complete joy to watch. The entire cast manage the routines well and with considerable skill and energy. The raw sexual energy in some routines is almost overpowering; almost, but never quite. The levels of temptation, seduction, sultry indifference, joyous abandon are constant and infectious. The rhythms in the music are replicated and invigorated by the full body movement McOnie brings to every big number. But there are softer, gentler moments too, such as the sort-of-dance Nina and Benny embark upon during Sunrise. In truth, there is not a foot put wrong by McOnie or any of the cast executing his routines. The choreography is a complete success.
Unlike most musicals, In The Heights starts in the middle of a narrative and ends without any closure. It is a slice of life on the streets in a close-knit community, but it offers no pat solutions or rosy perspective. Crime, poverty, uncertainty, fear, hope, joy, friendship and love dance and rap over the sidewalks, beside the train tracks, but no force becomes dominant. Whether any of the couples or possible couples will survive is unclear. Whether Usnavi’s Bodega will survive is unclear. Whether Nina will graduate is unclear. Whether Piragua Guy will ever make a sale is unclear.
It is in this respect that In The Heights most clearly resembles Sondheim, especially Company. The work is a series of vignettes that mesh together, largely through dance, to tell a complicated, multi-textured story, ostensibly about a central character but really about a community, a society and its values, strengths and restraints. In some ways, In The Heights is a natural successor to Carousel as well as its more obvious progenitor: West Side Story. Given Miranda’s oft-stated admiration for Sondheim and the musical theatre tradition, there are no surprises in any of this. His musical is about ordinary people and ordinary activities, and therein lies its near uniqueness. There are few musicals which deal with the everyday so spiritedly and with such style.
Where Sheppard does not succeed is in the performances from the male leads and in the acting scenes. One could be forgiven for thinking that these were not important enough issues for Sheppard; but, more likely, the discipline that attended the initial performances has not been maintained. It’s impossible to tell, but at this stage in the run the leading men are woefully inadequate, especially given the lustre the leading women bring to all they do.
Bedella is unfeasibly wooden as the patriarchal Kevin and incapable of meeting the vocal demands of the role. His rendition of Inútil was rasping and unattractive, curiously strained at the top. Reid, clearly cast for his torso (undeniably impressive when revealed in the balcony scene here) struggled with diction, sang too loudly (often) and harshly, and was at sea in the acting stakes. None of Vas Constanti (Piragua Guy), Antoine Murray-Straughan (Graffiti Pete) or Cleve September (Sonny) were convincing in their acting, but each was more than personable and all were accomplished in the dancing stakes, September especially, although in each case, diction seemed unimportant or at least unattainable.
In the central, pivotal, role of Usnavi, Sam Mackay gets by, but never reaches the heights, so to speak, that the role offers. He needs to focus more on the character’s inherent charm, because it is critical for the audience to see why Abuela adores Usnavi as she does, why the community respects, admires and loves him. Diction is a real issue for Mackay also and too often he shouts rather than sings. Yet, despite these issues, he manages well enough, drawing a lot of strength from the wonderful women in the cast.
Indeed, that is true all round – the skills and energy of the female principals carry the production. The group ensemble numbers provide energetic bursts of adrenalin, but choreography aside, this In The Heights succeeds aswell as it does only because of its women.
Particularly during Act One, the general standard of singing is insufficient; barked notes, flat notes, indecipherable lyrics. Act Two fares much better with much more discipline and correct tonality in evidence; this may have been a result of interval intervention from Musical Director Phil Cornwell but, whatever the reason, it amply demonstrated that there was no reason why the musical aspects of Act One could not have been more precise and true.
Cornwell’s control of the orchestra was impeccable: the beats and accompaniment were clear and strong throughout and there was no difficultly with the different styles of music the score offers. All of the physical aspects of the production were appropriate, sometimes inspired: the set by Takis perfectly evoked the sense of the train dominated street corner of Washington Heights; Howard Hudson’s smart lighting design was colourful and fitting, lightening or darkening as the mood of each scene changed (the blackout was especially well handled); and Gareth Owens’ sound design ensured that the sounds produced by the cast were easily heard.
Miranda and Hudes created something in In The Heights which shamelessly set out to appeal to ordinary folk unused to the high-brow ways of Broadway. Sheppard’s production works more effectively, overall, than that first Broadway production. But Act One is somewhat of an endurance test (apart from the dancing and No Me Diga); Act Two is close to perfect. With more acute casting of the male leads and more attention to the detail of the singing, this would be an undeniable smash-hit.
As it is, it is great fun, and the women provide many bravura moments, as does McOnie’s effervescent choreography. The very young audience around me adored it. In itself, that is a major achievement.
The real questions posed by In The Heights are these: when will someone write a new British musical about ordinary people and ordinary, everyday events? And what sound will dominate that musical?