Before there was Hamilton, there was In The Heights. Because of the astonishing success that his sophomore musical has achieved since its Off-Broadway debut in 2015, it’s easy to forget that Lin-Manuel Miranda penned music and lyrics for another groundbreaking Tony Award-winning ‘Best Musical’, which was also selected as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Drama.
In 2008, when Miranda was only 28 years old, In The Heights arrived on the Broadway stage, with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes (herself now a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright). Set over three days, it tells the story of a tightknit Hispanic community in the New York City neighbourhood of Washington Heights and is told from the perspective of Dominican-American bodega owner Usnavi (Ryan Gonzalez), who longs to return to the Dominican Republic following his parents’ death.
Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, In The Heights presents a vibrant cast of characters, confronting a variety of challenges, but all the while bound together by an indissoluble sense of community. In spite of the setbacks that each of these individuals faces, they remain buoyed by the strength of that pulsating community, which shares their difficult times as well as their celebrations. Though telling two vastly different tales, both In The Heights and The View UpStairs (the production that preceded it at the Hayes) have spoken to the importance of community and the profound loss that comes when it no longer exists (in this story, it’s the gentrification of the neighbourhood that plays a substantial role in breaking down its traditional roots).
The content of In The Heights’ book is largely nothing new for musical theatre – there are stories of characters chasing love interests, seeking to eschew the expectations of their elders, and overcoming prejudices. However, stories of Latin Americans are rare on Australian stages, and even more unusual in musical theatre are Miranda’s musical compositions. Instead of favouring traditional Broadway style numbers, his score fuses Latin and hip-hop sounds to give In The Heights an authentic and contemporary flavour. It’s a dynamic score that demands that most of its performers have sizeable vocal chops.
The good news is that this cast (the first professional cast to take on In The Heights in New South Wales) has the talent to make this production a tremendous success. With barely a moment to breathe after appearing in The View UpStairs (which closed five days before In The Heights’ first preview), Gonzalez gives his most remarkable performance to date as Usnavi – and it is remarkable. His rapping ensures each and every word of Miranda’s lyrics is audible, while his movement is effortless and his energy staggering. This is very much his show.
That said, there are noteworthy performances in every direction. Luisa Scrofani brings a delightful innocence to her portrayal of the bright but disconsolate Nina, who carries the hefty weight of her family hopes for her on her shoulders. She showcases a beautiful soprano and those sung moments are consistently injected with believable emotion. Scrofani has good chemistry with Tim Omaji, who plays the young African-American man working in Nina’s family’s business and desperate to win the approval of her parents. Omaji is excellent in that role.
Margi de Ferranti is terrific as Abuela Claudia, a hearty and soulful Cuban grandmother seen as a matriarch by much of the neighbourhood, owing to the role she has played in most of their lives. Not only is she convincing in the role, but de Ferranti provides one of the evening’s standout moments, performing ‘Paciencia y Fe’ (Patience and Faith), an expression of gratitude for some great fortune she has after years of hardship and trying times. It’s a stunning vocal performance, deservedly prompting one of the most rapturous applauses of opening night.
Monique Montez fits like a glove in the role of Daniela, the brassy and talebearing but caring salon owner. It’s a vivacious portrayal, with Montez showing off her comedic skills. Olivia Vasquez delivers as salon worker and Usnavi’s love interest, Vanessa, while Marty Alix makes a strong debut at the Hayes as Usnavi’s go-getting younger cousin, Sonny. And as Camilla, Nina’s smart and spirited mother, Ana Maria Belo is a fantastic asset to this cast.
Director Luke Joslin (whose last directing credit at the Hayes was for Blue Saint’s Songs For A New World) has steered a production of In The Heights that is characterised by enormous heart and exuberant energy. Originally staged overseas as a full-scale commercial production in the same Broadway house now hosting Hamilton, In The Heights has been wonderfully translated for the intimate Hayes auditorium, thanks also to Simon Greer’s and Elizabeth Franklin’s great work on sets and costumes. Lucy Bermingham’s tight seven-piece band makes sure the reproduction of Miranda’s score is as lively as the cast’s performances.
But on the creative front, its Amy Campbell’s outstanding choreography that impresses most. Not only is there a wealth of superb technical movement (very well executed by the cast), but thoughtful choices that feel so apt to the story and its characters, and fuse naturally with Miranda’s music.
In The Heights continues what has been a stunning start to the 2018 season at Hayes Theatre Co. This is a highly entertaining, utterly infectious production that tells a story of characters infrequently seen on stage. And until Hamilton arrives, it’s the best chance Sydney audiences have to discover why Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of the best things to happen to musical theatre this century.
IN THE HEIGHTS – SEASON DETAILS
Season: Playing now until 15 April, 2018
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point)
Times: Tues – Sat 7:30pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 1pm and 6pm
Price: $69 Adult, $64 Concession
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or by phone on (02) 8065 7337
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