fri 23/08/2019

In the Heights, King's Cross Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

In the Heights, King's Cross Theatre

In the Heights, King's Cross Theatre

Swagger, salsa and soul in this exhilarating production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's innovative musical

Talking shop: Usnavi (Sam Mackay) holds courtJohan Persson

Rents are going up, local businesses priced out, and the rich folk and hipsters are invading. That’s in Washington Heights, New York’s largely Dominican-American quarter, but it could as easily describe King’s Cross, one of multiple London areas undergoing gentrification. This Tony Award-winning musical from pioneering composer Lin-Manuel Miranda (currently ruling Broadway with Hamilton), which features an irresistible hip-hop, rap, pop and Latin fusion score, is propulsive entertainment with a resonant social conscience.

Our guide to the Heights is Usnavi (Sam Mackay), whose bodega – inherited from his deceased parents – is the heart of the neighbourhood, dispensing coffee and cheer in equal measure. Stanford student Nina (Lily Frazer) is their big success story, but tuition places untenable economic pressure upon her and her parents (David Bedella and Josie Benson), owners of a struggling gypsy cab company. Employee Benny (Joe Aaron Reid) yearns for recognition, while salon owner Daniela (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) prepares to shut up shop, Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Cleve September) longs for independence, and Vanessa (Jade Ewen) for escape. Two budding romances, one distinctly West Side Story-esque, a fatal illness, a blackout, a fight and a convenient lottery win complete the breathless episodic stream – not so much soap opera as telenovela. (The company pictured below.)In the Heights, King's Cross TheatreQuiara Alegría Hudes’ book is the weakest aspect, offering a sanitised view of hardship: no drugs, serious crime, violence or despair, just one instance of artistic graffiti. A sappy second half resolves all conflicts, firmly preaching boundless positivity. But it’s a functional frame for Miranda’s innovative, richly textured numbers, which thoughtfully address the concept of home and its importance in shaping identity, whether it’s defined as where you are, where you came from, who your family is, where you work, or who you love. The American promise of acceptance and opportunity is writ large, with Independence Day celebrated in carnival fashion: heritage and adopted nationhood merged.

Luke Sheppard’s exuberant production makes a seamless transition from Southwark Playhouse’s thrust to the tight traverse at King’s Cross, where it plays in rep with The Railway Children. Its greatest asset remains Drew McOnie’s hip-swivelling, pulsating choreography, which throws in athletic aerials, racy club salsa, expressive contemporary and silky-smooth partnering while maintaining its grounded, freewheeling urban vibe. Movement grows organically out of storytelling and vice versa, perfectly complementing Miranda’s seemingly spontaneous music.  

In the Heights, King's Cross TheatreIt’s delivered with gusto by a dynamic, disciplined company and superb band. Frazer and Reid match unaffected performances with exquisitely soulful singing, while Bedella provides gravitas as the conflicted patriarch, Benson combines sensuality and an iron will (“I dance best when I’m angry!”), Mackay delivers Usnavi’s rousing rhymes with conviction, Ewen’s Vanessa is smoking hot but lacks vocal variety, September and Naudi balance charming comic relief with smooth moves, and Hamilton-Barritt (pictured above, centre, with Ewen and Naudi), though five months pregnant, is still a scene-stealingly sassy bombshell. Do we need a new award for Best Featured Foetus?

Despite a nod to tradition sometimes stifling individual choices or adversely affecting social mobility, this is a big-hearted paean to community, pulling together in sorrow and in celebration. Schmaltzy, yes, but resistance is futile. This is a sizzling West End hit in the making.

@mkmswain  

This is a big-hearted paean to community, pulling together in sorrow and in celebration

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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