In the Heights continues at Southwark Playhouse, London until 7 June.
Arriving on Broadway in 2008, In the Heights depicts the lives and loves of the residents of Washington Heights over three long, hot summer days. With music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, the score reflects the melting pot of cultures resident in the neighbourhood and successfully blends the traditional musical theatre structure with a score inspired by rap, bodegas and salsa. The original production won the Tony for Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Choreography but, for various reasons, the show never managed to cross the pond to the West End.
Entrepreneurial producers Paul Taylor-Mills and Kylie Vilcins have taken this ebullient musical and given it its London debut, putting together a cracking creative team of hot names and a cast of seriously talented triple-treat performers who embrace both the spirit and rhythm of the piece. Alegria Hudes’ book observes life in the Heights through somewhat rose-tinted spectacles, but the feel-good factor here, married to the urgency of the vibrant score, is what makes In the Heights so accessible, even to audiences unfamiliar to the musical style.
Director Luke Sheppard guides us through the narrative with a sure hand, coaxing some beautiful performances from a predominantly young cast, but the real star here is Drew McOnie’s lively choreography. Hip-hop moves bristling with angst blend into vivacious Latin salsas, creating a constant buzz on the thrust stage to re-create the heat on the streets of the colourful suburb. The set from takis encapsulates the essence of life on the streets from the litter and graffiti through to the multicoloured piragua (a Dominican slushy) sold by the vendor on the street.
There are some thrilling performances here too, not least from an astoundingly talented and versatile ensemble who weave through the story singing and dancing up a storm. Christina Modestou takes centre stage as Nina, the girl from the hood, made-good whose desire to drop out of college gives the story its backbone, summed up in the beautiful number ‘Breathe’.
Back in the Heights, Nina re-acquaints herself with her family – strong work from David Bedella and Josie Benson – her friend Vanessa (Emma Kingston), who has aspirations of her own, and her love interest Benny, played with strength and dignity by Wayne Robinson. There are stand-out performances too from Damian Buhagiar as Sonny, Sam Mackay as Usnavi and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as the sassy Hispanic salon manageress, Daniela.
With its progressive, Latin and hip-hop score, searing choreography and such a committed ensemble cast, In the Heights is both aspirational and inspirational and deserves a much wider audience than six weeks at the Southwark Playhouse will allow – book your tickets now!
Readers may also be interested in (from the archive):
Drunk with Drew McOnie – Interview
David Bedella & Friends – St James Theatre Studio – Review