In The Heights exploded back into Melbourne this weekend with all of the colour, energy and ferocity of its original run at Chapel Off Chapel in 2015. In a new home at the National Theatre in St Kilda, the larger venue both helped and hindered the return season’s preview show.
The show about community and home, whether coming home or wanting to leave home, is a rich fusion of musical and dance cultures, blending hip hop, rap and salsa, which won Lin-Manuel Miranda the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical. The show, with its big cast numbers, energetic music and incredible harmonies is borderline a spiritual experience for hard core theatre fans.
The performances by returning and new cast members are still electric, from the powerful vocals to the slick dance moves and the comedic timing and delivery of the cast. While it is difficult for me to single out individuals in such an incredible cast, it would be remiss of me to not mention James Elmer returning to the cast as Benny; is there anything that boy can’t do, from rap and dance and his wicked comedic delivery? Stephen Lopez, who plays Usnavi, whose voice can be mistaken at times for Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, Bianca Baykara who never misses a beat as the charming and adventurous Vanessa, Anna Francesca Armernia who captivates the stage with her huge voice as Nina, Peter Sette stealing the show with his break dancing as Graffiti Pete and Gareth Jacobs stealing it back with THAT voice as Piragua Guy…. there is a reason he has been cast in the Australian Premiere of Disney’s Aladdin as the cover for Genie/Babkak/Sultan, and we cannot wait to see him take the stage again. The entire cast blow the audience away with their endless energy and well coordinated moves that are almost exhausting to watch.
Those moves are one of the major pros about moving to a larger venue: in the previous run of the show, the cast were restricted to the tight stage of Chapel off Chapel, boxed in by stunning but large set pieces. In the National Theatre, there’s more room to bump and grind, but despite the larger venue it’s still disappointing to see the cast continually bumping into each other, but I’d really like to put that down to first performance nerves. The choreography by Yvette Lee (and restaged by Phil Haddad) is slick and tight, with the dancers and the ensemble performing like a well oiled machine.
With a larger venue, and more seats to fill and more people to enjoy the magic of this show, we reach a real con of the National Theatre. With its history as theatre, cinema and performing arts school, it’s a shame that this venue doesn’t have better acoustics to support musical theatre performances. Maybe it was just because the house wasn’t full for the first performance, but unfortunately the massive wall of sound the show creates often falls flat in the cavernous space. On top of this, some mixing issues and microphone issues across the show leave the band competing with the vocals or the vocals competing against the band, but both of them battling the venue. It’s a disappointment that the phenomenal music and incredible voices have to compete, because in the moments they are mixed just right, they are breathtaking, with incredible harmonies and the actors able to really let rip and hold nothing back in the larger space.
At one stage in the show, I did ask myself “Is this all too big?” Even though the music and rhythm of the show is fast paced, I do feel we skipped over the more minor elements of storytelling and developing those characters into fully fleshed out entities. Having already seen the show last year I knew what to expect and the character back stories, but this may leave new viewers less likely to engage fully with the cast.
Lighting by Jason Bovaird was able to capture the ever changing shadows and colours of the neighbourhood and highlights stand out as back lit scenes and the moment the stage was cleverly light by torches and mobile phones alone in Blackout. Costumes by Kate Sinclair are bright and modern with a homage to the 90s in America, blending current styles with cultural and past trends.
Under the direction of James Cutler, with musical direction by Cameron Thomas and Yvette Lee’s choreography, this show is one tight ship that with a little bit of tightening will once again win the hearts and souls of Melbourne’s audiences. This is a rare opportunity to catch this fantastic performance of Tony winning In The Heights for a limited time only, and theatre lovers should not miss this.
In The Heights is now playing until March 12 at The National Theatre http://www.stageart.com.au/