On a night out in Vauxhall some time ago, my pal tried to teach me some salsa. “Moi? Salsa? I couldn’t possibly!” The rhythm necessary unfortunately alludes me, but I have to say, from the very beginning of In the Heights I was at least attempting to salsa right in my seat – and I tell you, my lower body was going mental.
The Tony award-winnning musical, first conceived in the early noughties, exploded on Broadway in 2008 before having its London premiere in 2014 at the Southwark Playhouse. Written by Quiara Alegria Hudes and with music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights looks at a series of people in the close-knit Latino community of New York’s Washington Heights. Nina (Lily Frazer) is the apple of her parent’s eye and has just returned home from Stanford University with some shocking news. Her childhood friend, Benny (Joe Aaron Reid), works for the family-run cab company and is especially happy to see her. Usnavi (Sam Mackay) runs a small convenience store and he, alongside beloved matriarch Abuela Claudia (Eve Polycarpou), form the soul and energy that run throughout the community. If you’re used to more ‘traditional’ musicial theatre then this show may be a surprise, but dang, it should be a very pleasant one.
Takis’s set is firmly in the centre of the audience – simple in its construction but perfectly fitting. The feel is almost early 90s Brooklyn, but references throughout the show place it firmly in the present, illustrated as well by some cracking costumes by Gabriella Slade. The story is strong but not always easy to keep track of, especially later when a certain lottery ticket is waiting to be claimed. Nina’s desire to make her parents and the rest of her ‘extended family’ proud conflict with her ever-growing need to be independent, which forms the basis of In the Heights, but it’s other performers that you strive to see on stage. Frazer’s performance is a good one and she has an especially strong voice, but its the sass, comedy and breathtaking dance numbers that make this show so special.
Jade Ewen (almost unrecognisable as a former Eurovision contestant and Sugababe) is an exquisite treat to see on stage. She moves and sings like a dream and her performance is convincing throughout. Mackay is excellent and I especially loved his and Cleve September’s (Sonny) rapping, promptly showing that musicals need not always be about the singing. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s Daniela probably stands out the most in an otherwise strong cast. She serves every single audience member a sass sandwich and the relationship between her and ditzy employee Carla (Sarah Naudi) is hilarious.
For me, In the Heights is predominantly about the energy from the music, insane dancing and Drew McOnie’s choreography. It’s not your typical musical, but what does that even mean now? The very definition is revolving and evolving, and hopefully there’ll be more of what makes this so damn cool in the future. There’s a reason this has won so many awards already and I expect it to continue getting them, so go and see it while you have the chance!
In The Heights is playing at the King’s Cross Theatre until January 2016. For more information and tickets, see the ATG tickets website. Photo: Johan Persson.