Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney
March 21, 2018
Demand for tickets to In the Heights at the Hayes Theatre Co was such that it had sold out before opening night. A large part of the appeal is doubtless the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music and lyrics (and starred in the original production) subsequently went on to write Hamilton, the phenomenally successful hip-hop musical about US founding father Alexander Hamilton – still one of the hottest tickets on Broadway after opening there in August 2015. But In the Heights is a delightful show in its own right, showcasing Miranda’s winning way with rap lyrics and catchy melodies, and bursting with exuberant life and heart. What’s more, this production from Blue Saint Productions is a bobby-dazzler, firing on all fronts.
Written by Miranda, with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, In the Heights first saw the light of day in Connecticut in 2005. It then moved to off-Broadway in 2007 and from there transferred to Broadway the following year, where it was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning four including Best Musical and Best Original Score.
The musical is set in Washington Heights, a New York City neighbourhood where gentrification is on the march, making life even harder for the close-knit community, most of them Spanish-speaking migrants from Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban backgrounds who moved there for a better life and are still struggling, hoping to make a life for their children.
In the opening number In the Heights, Usnavi (Ryan Gonzalez in the role originally played by Miranda), the owner of the local bodega (store), introduces us to the various characters. (“Everybody’s stressed, yes, but they press through the mess/Bounce cheques and wonder what’s next”). The sharp rapping with its clever, witty rhymes is instantly engaging and a blast of fresh air in the world of musical theatre.
Over the course of three days, through a series of vignettes, we follow the characters and share their hopes, dreams, loves, losses and struggles. Usnavi, who was brought up by the community matriarch Abuela Claudia (Margi de Ferranti), after his parents died when he was young, is known and loved by everybody. He’s sweet on Vanessa, who works at Daniela’s beauty store. Vanessa is desperate to move to a flat downtown but her lack of a good credit rating is hampering her efforts. Daniela (Monique Montez) is having to move on too as her lease has expired and the rent has increased too much.
Kevin (Alexander Palacio) and his wife Camilla (Ana Maria Belo) run the local taxi firm and are beyond proud of their daughter Nina (Luisa Scrofani) who has been away at university on a scholarship. However, Nina has something to tell her parents, but isn’t sure how to break the news. Benny, who works for Kevin, is smitten with Nina but as he is not Latino Kevin is not having a bar of it. Then there’s Usnavi’s wise-cracking young cousin Sonny (Marty Alix) who helps at the bodega, the Piragua Guy (Richard Valdez) who sells snow cones, Graffiti Pete (Stephen Tannos) and various others.
Though the book is fairly slight, and the weakest thing about the show, the musical vividly conjures life in the barrio and gives us characters that we care about.
Director Luke Joslin has brought together a top-notch cast. At the heart of the production, Ryan Gonzalez is divine as Usnavi, proving what a versatile performer he is. Known primarily in the past as a superb dancer, he comes to his role fresh from playing Freddy, the drag queen, in The View UpStairs at the Hayes and one of the Angels in Kinky Boots before that.
Here, though he has certainly got all the dance moves, he shows what a fabulous actor he is too. In his tongue-in-cheek cabaret show Hispanic Attack! he was all thrusting chest and swivelling hips; here as the diffident Usnavi his stance is less assertive. He creates a character you simply want to hug and he does a fine job with the rapping, the rhythms flowing organically, the lyrics punchy and clear.
As Abuela Claudia, Margi de Ferranti has rarely been better. She is also at the heart of the piece, an emotional anchor, and her big number about life as a migrant Paciencia y Fé (Patience and Faith) is spine-tingling. Luisa Scrofani gives a lovely natural performance as Nina and sings with heartfelt beauty, and the chemistry between her and Tim Omaji (another very impressive performance) is really sparky.
Olivia Vasquez brings glorious vocals and plenty of sass to the role of Vanessa, Marty Alix exudes a lovely cheeky energy as Sonny, while Monique Montez and Libby Asciak inject plenty of laughs as Daniela and her assistant Carla. Ana Maria Belo is also a superb as the up-tight Camilla who rules the family roost, and Richard Valdez is endearing as the Piragua Guy. But there is not a weak link in this terrific, ebullient cast.
Every aspect of the production works together and uses the tiny space very cleverly – the set by Simon Greer, costumes by Elizabeth Franklin, lighting by Trudy Dalgleish and sound by Anthony Lorenz. Best of all is Amy Campbell’s fabulous choreography which ignites the production with every routine, and Lucy Bermingham’s tight musical direction.
All in all, In the Heights is an exhilarating production with energy to burn that is sweet, moving and uplifting. I would say, beg, borrow or steal a ticket but looks like they really are as rare as hen’s teeth.
In the Heights runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until April 15