King’s Cross Theatre until 3 January 2016
Guest Reviewer: Liz Dyer
The evenings may be getting colder, but inside the King’s Cross Theatre there’s a heatwave going on, in more than one sense. In the Heights was a word-of-mouth hit on Broadway before arriving in London, and it’s easy to see why; the show is vivacious, colourful and full of energy, with a strong story and a memorable cast of characters. What’s not to love?
In the Heights tells the story of a close-knit Hispanic community in Washington Heights, New York. Over three days during a summer heatwave, we share the characters’ hopes, fears, loves and losses, as each gets the chance to tell their story.
There’s Usnavi, whose bodega forms the heart of the community; his cousin Sonny, only a teenager but wise beyond his years; Abuela Claudia, a grandmother to them all; ambitious Benny, learning Spanish to impress his boss’s daughter and desperate to be accepted; Nina, the first to get out of El Barrio and go to college… I could go on and on. Each of the characters is beautifully drawn and has their own unique personality, and you might think that with so many stories, some would get lost in the crowd, but somehow that never happens.
This is due largely to the amazing cast, who are clearly having a great time, but also give some incredible performances. Again, I could name them all, but let’s pull out a few highlights. Eve Polycarpou is wonderful as Abuela Claudia; her frail appearance hides a determined personality and one heck of a voice. Sam Mackay is a perfect choice to play Usnavi – he looks, and tries to act, like a tough guy, but can’t hide his heart of gold; his emotional scenes are genuinely moving. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is hilarious as salon owner Daniela, who has a flair for the dramatic and loves nothing more than a good gossip. I also loved the all-too-brief appearances by Vas Constanti as Piragua Guy and the astonishingly flexible Antoine Murray-Straughan as Graffiti Pete. These relatively minor characters are still detailed enough to draw you in to their story and make you love them, and this is what makes In The Heights so special.
But the show wouldn’t be what it is without Lin-Manuel Miranda’s irresistible music, which blends a variety of styles to bring El Barrio to life. In many ways, it’s like a 21st century West Side Story – only without all the doom and gloom. The score’s energetic, with some truly spectacular group numbers, showcasing Drew McOnie’s choreography; sometimes there’s so much going on that it’s hard to know where to look. But Miranda also knows when to take a step back and calm things down. As much as the show is a celebration of a vibrant community, it’s also a story of individuals dealing with change, and – as in life – not everything that happens is good news. Besides, if the energy levels went any higher, they might have blown the roof off.
In The Heights is uplifting, funny and moving, a show that reminds us the importance of home and family – which doesn’t necessarily always mean the people you’re related to. Perhaps it’s the proximity of the audience to the stage, but by the end, all you want to do is jump up there and join in the dancing (and I don’t dance, so that’s really saying something). The layout of the theatre, with the audience arranged on both sides of the stage, does mean that from time to time you find yourself looking at an actor’s back, and occasionally turning your head like you’re at a tennis match in order to try and take in every detail. However, neither of these quibbles stops this from being a spectacular and infectiously joyful show, that just makes you feel good about life. We need more shows like this one – see it while you can.