Last Updated on 20th October 2015
In The Heights
King’s Cross Theatre
When Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn urged us to ‘Take the A-train’ it was Harlem they had in mind as a destination. That was the happening hood of Upper Manhatten then. It is a symbol of how things have changed that when you first glimpse the set of In the Heights, the A-train subway exit needs no explanation. It is the automatic gateway to the Latino community of Washington Heights, the new bubbling cultural cauldron so memorably captured here in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pulsating fusion of Latin pop, salsa, and hip-hop.
This show comes already garlanded with prizes. The winner of multiple Tony awards when it opened on Broadway in 2008, it was also a great success at the Southwark Playhouse last year (part of that venue’s recent golden run of well-chosen hit productions), and now transfers to a much larger space with most of the cast and creative team intact. How does it fare on the huge tennis-court sized traverse stage of the King’s Cross Theatre? How well does it shine when separated from the dominating multi-talented presence of Miranda himself, now enjoying further creative success in Hamilton on Broadway?
This show is strong on character but thin on plot. Not much happens in the book of Quiara Alegría Hudes: there are hints of West Side Story in the clash between older and younger generations but without the sustained intra-community conflict, and all the characters are facing threats of eviction from the barrio as gentrification begins. Summer heat sizzles, a power cut causes mayhem, and departures and new beginnings are contemplated. But the characters are already fully formed and richly varied with great scope for creative comic interaction, rivalrous friction, pursuit of dreams and new careers and romantic resolution.
Usnavi (Sam Mackay), who runs the local bodega, is too kind-hearted to make a good living and dreams of either returning to the Dominican Republic or teaming up with apparently inaccessible Vanessa (Jade Ewen), who can’t get a credit-rating for the downtown apartment she craves. The hair salon where she works is facing closure though they will first have to get past the boss, feisty Daniela (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt. The next- door taxi service, Rosario’s, run by Kevin (David Bedella) and his wife Camila (Josie Benson) is also financially precarious, despite the efforts of ambitious dispatcher Benny (Joe Aaron Reid), and the success of clever daughter Nina (Lily Frazer), in leaving the area to take up a place at Stanford. Presiding genially is community grandma, Abuela Claudia (Eve Polycarpou).
The layout of the set mirrors the characters with the bodega and Claudia’s flat and balcony dominating one end of the traverse, and the hair salon and minicab office, the other. Characters without fixed abode – Sonny (Cleve September), Usnavi’s cousin, a graffiti artist (Antione Murray-Straughan), a piragua seller (Vas Constanti), and a chorus of neighbours roam in between. Behind a screen to one side are the snappy, brassy, pin-sharp orchestra, directed by Phil Cornwell, and with Gavin Mallett’s trumpet soaring high and effortlessly as needed. There are a dozen numbers in each act with a porous line between dialogue, rap lyrics and fully orchestrated set-pieces, whether solo, duet or ensemble.
I mention all these layers first of course to give a basic sketch of the evening, but also to emphasise how the success of a musical such as this depends on so many interlocking pieces and contributions rather than any one. Gone are the days when the audience were meant to take away a few memorable tunes and stand-out songs as the legacy of the evening. Instead we have the holistic experience of a show, which cannot be disaggregated any more into separate parts. In that respect In the Heights is a huge success, both technically and artistically. As I looked around me at the primarily young audience, smiling and tapping along to the relentless beat, acrobatic choreography and dazzlingly witty rap lyrics, I got a clear sense that this is where the cutting edge of musical theatre now is, and will remain for quite some time. In a significant sign of the changing of the guard it is perhaps revealing that Miranda has also recently collaborated with Sondheim and Laurents on a Spanish language version of West Side Story.
Where the standard is so high among performers and creatives and when the whole is so dependent on collective achievement it is invidious to single out individuals for special praise so what follows here is simply a brief set of my own subjective highlights and standout moments.
We have to start with the movement and dance which is totally absorbing throughout thanks to the hugely experienced choreographer Drew McOnie. Whether your eye alights on individuals or roams over the ensemble there is no weak link and so much detailed imagination and physical panache at work. I was particularly taken by the way two moveable fire-escapes were brought into play to give height as well as depth in the crowd scenes.
It is hard to overstress the achievement in getting so many words across so audibly and intelligently and in a wholly convincing set of accents. Knowing that they have story to tell and jewel-like one-liners to get across, the singers have managed a successful trade-off between the machine-gun rattle of rap and intelligibility that is exhilarating to hear, particularly in the mouths of the most experienced performers such as Sam Mackay and Joe Aaron Reid. But there are gentler points of repose too that command admiration.
Costumes, the work of designer Gabriella Slade, are a gaudy riot of primary colours and bling that make Carmen Batmanghelidjh look beige by comparison. There are some spectacular and cheeky lighting effects from Howard Hudson – for example, take-out coffee cups that glow in the dark and a special moment of blackout illuminated only the swooping and bobbing of dozens of mobile phones. Director Luke Sheppard keeps things moving elegantly and ensures that the full resources of this big space are deployed to full effect. My one cavil is that the first half feels a tad too long at seventy five minutes. There is no need to cut any of the songs, all of which earned their keep, but some judicious trimming of repeats could be done to advantage.
As I said, the songs are not really intended to stand out over and above the experience of the whole, but one moment that stopped the show with applause in the second half was Josie Benson’s defiant performance of ‘Enough’, a transcendent moment of self-assertion and refusal to be overlooked that earned its special prominence in the evening.
In sum this is a show that deserves all the plaudits that have come its way and should receive a long run both at the King’s Cross Theatre and in even larger West End venues. As I went off to the Coliseum the next night for an opera I could not help thinking how successful this show would be in filling the two thousand six hundred seats there with enthusiastic young people, where ENO currently struggle. When will London finally get around to matching up the right spaces with the right genres and make the Coliseum the home of blockbuster musicals?