A visit to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first show is essential preparation for his Hamilton next year. Another success story, it has had a 15-month run, after a premiere at the Southwark Playhouse, sharing a King’s Cross venue with The Railway Children. Strong enough to leave an impression wherever it finds a home, the traverse staging here, expertly handled by director Luke Sheppard and serving Drew McOnie’s energetic choreography superbly, seems especially suited for such an engaging piece.
There’s a lot of love surrounding In The Heights, not least from its dedicated young fans. Firstly, there’s love of community – namely, the area of New York that provides a setting. Two matriarchs, the elderly Abuela and the satisfyingly camp beauty salon owner Daniela, create a sense of heritage with impressive efficiency (as well as providing great roles for Norma Atallah and Aimie Atkinson). Home is the key, with nods to the problems of gentrification, and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ book works well here.
Then there’s love within the family. Most obviously with the Rosarios, who struggle with their daughter’s decision to drop out of college and start dating one of their employees. The production is lucky to have David Bedella beefing out the role of the father – he is always superb – while Juliet Gough matches him in a solo number that makes you feel she is underused. It’s a shame they couldn’t also fit in a sense of their own love affair – it seems too much time was spent on that American dream.
Which brings us to romance. Not one but two struggling couples create sweet moments. There’s Nina Rosario’s star-crossed affair with Benny (both Gabriela Garcia and Arun Blair-Mangat sing their parts deliciously). And Usnavi, with his fumbling approaches to Vanessa, another strong female character that Sarah Naudi makes the most of. Usnavi is a star role for Sam Mackay, who makes light work of his task as narrator and utilises his character’s diffidence well. Alongside great chemistry with well-meaning cousin Sonny, a sterling performance from Damian Buhagiar, it all goes to make a hero out of this everyday guy, which drives the show marvellously.
There are some stumbles from the book when it comes to rounding off stories and a sentimentality that’s hardly sophisticated. But the staging, including a brilliant scene during a power blackout, dancing and energy are all terrific. Miranda’s music is an innovative blend of rap with the Spanish heritage of Manhattan Heights, which revels in its multiculturalism. It’s complex but never alienating. Likewise, the spirit of the piece is a simple one. With a strong knowledge of musical theatre, for all its originality, this is a good old-fashioned show full of big emotions.
Until 8 January 2017
Photos by Johan Persson