We all know that musical theatre is not for everyone, in fact it is seen as quite the done thing in my circles to roll one’s eyes and say that you hate musicals (you should see the withering death stare I mete out to this kind of person). But, given the fact that you are unlikely to be sitting in the audience of In the Heights if you are one such type, I can’t think of a reason why you would not love this show. And, as far as musical theatre goes, this one is created by a man who is currently revolutionising the genre in the United States.
A detractor might say that it does not have a difficult plot or that its story has been done before (haven’t most stories in some format?). But the entertainment is immense, the music is great, the singing is fantastic and the dancing? It’s hotter than Puerto Rico.
In the Heights is set in Washington Heights, the northern neighbourhood of Manhattan, New York, which is populated by Dominican, Puerto Rican and other Hispanic descendants. The story centres on Usnavi the grocery owner (Sam Mackay), who acts as a narrator and linchpin of the community, along with the other shopkeepers and locals for whom everyday life is far from easy. We also meet Nina (Gabriela Garcia), the good girl from el barrio who escaped poverty and went to university, but came back again, and we follow her love story with the tall, handsome Benny (Arun Blair-Mangat) whose tones are as sweet as honey. I felt echoes of West Side Story, with the juxtaposition of families from different backgrounds, against the Latino backdrop. I was happy that the Spanish language and culture is very much present, using both spoken, sung and rapped words. It even came as a surprise after the show when Sam Mackay came out of character to speak in his usual North West London accent to introduce producer Paul Taylor-Mills on the occasion of the show’s first birthday.
The second year has brought a change of cast. The (new) cast we saw was all amazing (as I’m certain the previous cast was). Powerful, strong singing voices, rapping, the moves, the acting and the humour are all on point. We particularly enjoyed brash but lovable hairdresser Daniela, played by Jocasta Almgill in her last performance in the show. The energy is absolutely infectious. Alongside the protagonists is an ensemble of dancers (choreography by Drew McOnie), who are breathtaking to watch. The women’s skirts are like belts – the word bodycon could have been invented for Daniela – and the men are cool, lithe and sexy. As well as some sweet romance, we also find humour, and there is sadness too. I had tears in my eyes to the ensemble piece ‘Alabanza’; as one of the comments on YouTube puts it, ‘I’m not crying, I just have some Lin-Manuel Miranda in my eye’. The story is real, and it is moving. It is a modern tale of contemporary issues, but at its heart it’s about the traditional values of home, love, family and loyalty.
The story is real because Washington Heights is the area where Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the show and Broadways’s latest darling, grew up himself. New Yorkers are currently tripping over themselves to see his latest show Hamilton: an Americal Musical, which has broken records and won an eye-popping number of awards. The calibre of celebrities who are raving about it is on the Barack Obama, Salman Rushdie and Busta Rhymes level. We met a woman from San Francisco at the back of the queue for the ladies, who attested that Hamilton was indeed awesome. Hamilton is about Alexander Hamilton, America’s lesser-known founding father, which I must say is an intriguing pivot for such a smash hit, especially when you find out that it is entirely played out in hip hop style. A recent interview with Miranda in the Guardian puts it like this: ‘after watching Hamilton, you find yourself wondering how the tale of a scrappy, post-revolutionary nation being born could ever have been told in a medium other than hip-hop’. Miranda himself played Hamilton on Broadway, as he too played Usnavi, and it is thought that he will also reprise the role when it comes to London (you will have to wait a year, I’m afraid, but you can sign up here for advance notice of the opening).
The fever pitch around this show seems far away from Kings Cross Theatre, London, and as I waited by the box office for my plus one to arrive, I witnessed a few (young) fans who were surprised and delighted to find that tickets were still available for the evening’s performance. In the Heights clearly has its own very dedicated audience, and adoring fans are returning time and time again, but it is not sold out as one might expect. People, it’s a good time to get tickets.
It’s got to be a good sign when you leave a show planning who you want to take back to see it, or who you want to tell to go – especially when it’s not just your friends, and your kids, but also your mum too. There’s nothing like a family show which will appeal to all ages. I am a self-confessed hispanophile, yet I still want everyone I know to go and see In the Heights, to see if they enjoy it as much as I did. Until Hamilton: an Americal Musical arrives in the UK, you can get an exhilarating, warm-hearted portion of Manuel-Miranda magic at the Kings Cross Theatre.
Booking until 8th January 2017 at the Kings Cross Theatre. You can book at this link.
We saw In the Heights on press tickets. Production shots by Johan Persson.