Originally written for The Upcoming.
In its hundred-year history only ten musicals have been nominated for a Pulitzer. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights is one of them. It won four Tonys and became a Broadway phenomenon in 2008, and now it makes its UK première at Southwark Playhouse.
Blue spotlights break through the haze to reveal corrugated iron shutters, splattered with graffiti and held up by bricks and scaffolding. This is Washington Heights, this is the barrio. It’s a lively medley of Dominicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans. But in Washington Heights everyone’s a bit down on their luck: Usnavi runs a bodega and looks after his ailing abuela; Nina has lost her scholarship at Stanford, forcing her mum and dad’s cab business into further financial hardship; Daniela’s salon is closing down. They sing their stories with a mix of hip-hop, rap, salsa, son Cubano. Maracas shake, trumpets and saxophones bring bursts of bright colour to the fizzing score.
There’s sex appeal for everyone: women in ridiculously tight dresses and men with ridiculously tight abs (both with plenty of cleavage on show) all dance to Drew McOnie’s relentless, vigorous choreography – lithe hips, body pops, salsa dance. This choreography beautifully conjures up a crowded, vibrant barrio. It is particularly effective, and impressive, during the first act finale that plays out all the tensions and relationships that have been building up during Act One and fills the small Southwark Playhouse stage to bursting point.
All the members of the cast under Luke Sheppard’s direction and all the musicians under Tom Deering’s musical supervision danced, sang, acted and played brilliantly to bring some summer excitement, and not a little sweat, to an otherwise sultry day. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt puts in an especially beguiling turn as Daniela, squeezed into a red dress and perched on high stilettos, with perfect hair, perfect make up, perfect posture and an intense sass and dryness to her delivery that makes the audience laugh at every line she speaks.
With utter joy and apparent ease In the Heights brings to London the potent heat of the barrio, but also the vibrancy and vitality of the neighbourhood, the sense of community and, above all, the love that these families and friends share in their most strained moments. Every song is a climax, every routine an explosion of colour and movement. This is a heart-warming, happy-making, feel-good summer hit.
In the Heights is on at the Southwark Playhouse until 7th June 2014, for further information or to book visit here.