In the Heights continues at the King’s Cross Theatre until 4 January 2016.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
After making a splash last year, the return of In the Heights to the King’s Cross Theatre will have been eagerly anticipated by those who missed its short run at the Fringe-sized Southwark Playhouse (and, indeed, by many who caught it). Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap-tongued, hip-hopping, salsa-footed score sizzles with a poetic, distinctive voice and the genre-smelting penmanship of a musical theatre denizen, and what this magnified transfer may lose in intimacy it boldly reclaims in raw power and West End polish.
Busting rhymes squarely in the narrator’s seat we meet Usnavi, played with energised dedication by Sam Mackay, as he introduces us to Washington Heights – the neighbourhood that frames the entire story – New York’s home-from-home to generations of Latin American expatriots. Joining the show are two new leading ladies: the enchantingly earnest Lily Frazer playing Nina Rosario, returning sunken-hearted from her first year at Stanford, and Jade Ewen’s aspirational Vanessa, determined to get out of the barrio and hair salon, to have a better life.
The struggles of keeping pace with an evolving city and the pressures of family and friendship, cast a light on the universal drama in work, play, survival and simple human connection. All the cast members put their hearts into this vivacious set of characters, and especially commanding are the returning pair of Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Daniela and Josie Benson as Camila Rosario, delivering impassioned performances throughout and especially shining at the beginning of Act II with their ‘Carnaval del Barrio’ and ‘Enough’, respectively. In such a vocally challenging show to be so musically effortless, and able to play every nuance on top of that, is a particular achievement.
David Bedella creates an excellent Kevin Rosario – tough, but driven by his love for his family and for their success and happiness. Less than eye-to-eye with him is Benny, played by Joe Aaron Reid, one of Kevin’s employees who yearns to strike out on his own. Close friend of Usnavi and Nina, he has great chemistry with both, and moves gracefully between the character’s confident front and his more sensitive side. Eve Polycarpou is the cast’s delightfully maternal head of the adopted family, as ‘Abuela’ Claudia. While she may seem docile, she is more than capable of celebrating her own moment in the sun.
Luke Sheppard returns as director and the show succeeds in just as many ways here as it did at Southwark. Much of that polish I spoke of comes from an improved sound balance – even halfway back in the audience, the dialogue and Tom Deering’s excellent band are both crystal clear (kudos to musical director Phil Cornwell and all the creative and stage team for making the show so slick).
The cast’s unilateral high standard of vocal finesse, alongside Drew McOnie’s masterfully expressive and utilitarian choreography, make the stage a constant hive of activity. The ensemble is a constant asset to the production, inflaming the group numbers and sweeping across the stage to embellish and underscore the peaks and troughs of the drama.
The lone downside to such an impassioned – on every level – affair, is a slow desensitisation to that constant high energy, such that the more poignant moments (of which there are many) can be occasionally sailed over without the relish they deserve. The cast does well to pull back in these moments but the tightness of the musical writing often affords little room for spontaneity.
That said, there is ample space for those more lighthearted moments, from Spanish lessons to American pop culture jokes, and the community the cast creates on stage is jubilant. This is a show that, for its comparatively basic book, is simply such an inventive, out of the ordinary piece of theatre, with its infectious music and exquisitely smart lyrics: and it’s produced here with such style, such conviction, that it must be a part of any theatregoer’s experience.
Book Tickets for In the Heights: www.musicaltheatrereview.entstix.com/tickets/in-the-heights
Readers may also be interested in:
News – In the Heights extends run at King’s Cross Theatre – see new images
Interview – Altar Boyz producer Paul Taylor-Mills is hitting the Heights