The Southwark Playhouse's acclaimed production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's IN THE HEIGHTS has shimmied itself across London to the site-specific theatre that is also where the stage version of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN is playing... well you know how much I love visiting a new theatre!
IN THE HEIGHTS was a big hit on Broadway with much being made of it's urban-influenced, hip-hop score, it ran for nearly three years and after being nominated for 13 Tony Awards it went on to win 4 including Best Musical and Best Score.
Miranda is Broadway's darling but I suspect there is an element of people falling over themselves to praise him to show how inclusive they are. I did enjoy the show as it has a good heart and is particularly strong on vibrant female characters. Sadly the most obvious part of the show is Quiara Alegría Hudes' book with it's ultimate conclusion that "happiness is found in your own back yard". How revolutionary.
The musical shows 24 hours in the lives of the inhabitants of a street in the Washington Heights area of New York in summertime - for some life goes on as it always has done but for a few life is changed. Usnavi runs a small bodega which doles out coffee to all and sundry who either live or work near-by: Kevin and Camila run a cab firm employing Benny who is learning his Spanish from the drivers (badly), Usnavi employs his nephew Sonny to work in his store while also looking out for Abuela Claudia, the elderly woman who raised him when his parents died, and Daniela is the gossipy owner of the local beauty salon who employs Vanessa, an ambitious girl who is trying to get out of the barrio who Usnavi secretly loves.
Kevin and Camila's daughter Nina unexpectedly arrives from her university in California and after countless enquiries about how she is doing, confesses that she has dropped out, unable to focus on her work while bearing her parent's aspirations for her success. Benny asks her out, Sonny gets Vanessa to agree to go out with Usnavi and they all head for a club where a fight erupts just as the barrio's electricity goes down due to the summer heat. In the morning realities are faced, some end happily, some bittersweet.
So... no great shakes storywise but Miranda has written a score that includes lightweight rap and hip-hop beats along with more standard fare. As I said the score definitely favours the female characters and while they are fairly obviously drawn they were well performed by the cast with verve and personality plus! The most eye-catching was Victoria Hamilton-Barrett as Daniela, she was actually heavily pregnant and her participation in the dance numbers had me on the edge of my seat! She didn't get as many laughs as she possibly could have but maybe her energy was expended in just getting on.
I had a raised eyebrow over the casting of Jade Ewan (the last member of the Sugababes) but she was actually very effective and sang very well as did Josie Benson as the fearsome Camila, Queen of the cab office. Lily Frazer as Nina also had a fine singing voice but was hampered by having such a drippy character to play. Eve Polycarpou certainly belted out her numbers as the ageing matriarch but the character was quite cloying as she was only there as a plot device in a mu-mu.
I enjoyed Sam Mackay as the big-hearted Usnavi who had a likable presence although he seemed to be imitating Eminem in his raps. David Bedella was absent without leave so Vas Constanti played Kevin, the put-upon owner of the cab office and he sang well. I also liked Joe Aaron Reid as the ambitious Benny, trusted by Kevin and Camila but only so far much to his anger.
The ensemble were also very hardworking and contributed greatly to the main success of the show which was the exciting urban choreography of Drew McOnie. The dance numbers tend to stop the show rather than add to it's flow but that doesn't stop them being quite thrilling. Luke Sheppard (who directed the recent CASA VALENTINA) does a workman-like job, keeping the action flowing from song-to-song, from dance routine to dance routine.
I am glad I saw it and would recommend it to anyone who wants a colourful, brash show that ultimately is all quite safe. The show has been extended but the house wasn't full on the night we went.
I would also recommend a visit to the Kings Cross Theatre which, although feels like quite a temporary space, had the most smiley, happy front-of-house staff I have encountered for a while.