In the last few years the Hayes Theatre has fostered a string of productions – such as Calamity Jane and Assassins – that have gone on to charm audiences in larger venues or on tour. The latest such success story is director Luke Joslin’s production of Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical In the Heights – a vibrant, heart-warming musical focusing on a Latin American community in Manhattan’s rapidly gentrifying Washington Heights – which completely sold out before it opened at the Hayes last year and has since picked up nine nominations in the Sydney Theatre Awards, including Best Production of a Musical and Best Direction of a Musical.
The cast of In the Heights at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © Clare Hawley
The biggest question facing Joslin’s production this time around was whether or not what worked in the tiny Hayes could work in a venue 20 times its capacity – the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall. Fortunately the simple set, which frames the bodega owned by central character Usnavi (the role played by Miranda himself on Broadway) expands easily to fill the stage and works a treat with a couple of extra dancers thrown in to retain the close, populous feel of the crowded street and club scenes, with the cast delivering high energy performances to match the larger space.
While much of the cast remains the same, the notable exception is Usnavi, who in the Hayes was played by Ryan Gonzales in a critically acclaimed turn that picked him up a Sydney Theatre Award nomination for Best Performance by a Male Actor in a Musical. Here the cast is led by Stephen Lopez, who played Usnavi in the Australian premiere of the musical in Melbourne in 2015, giving a warm performance, with plenty of comedy, as the well-loved bodega owner whose story binds the vignettes of life in Washington Heights together.
Quiara Alegría Hudes’s sentimental book pales somewhat in comparison to Miranda’s sharp lyrics, but it’s the music that drives this show, giving it both its vitality and its heart, and a strong cast makes this show about community a success. Particularly strong are the first act’s numbers, Miranda bringing each character to life and deftly tracing their relationships and the growing pressures bearing down on each.
Steven Lopez and Olivia Vasquez in In the Heights. Photo © Clare Hawley
Lopez brings plenty of energy to Usanvi’s rap numbers, Miranda’s upbeat score spanning hip-hop to salsa and Latin pop, rendered in high-octane performances by the band under Musical Director Lucy Bermingham and given dynamic physical life on stage by choreographer Amy Cambell (both of whom are also up for Sydney Theatre Awards).
While Usnavi runs the bodega, looks out for his younger cousin Sonny (a spritely Marty Alix, who has picked up two Sydney Theatre Awards nominations for the role) and dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, he has his eye on Vanessa (a potent Olivia Vasquez) who just wants to get out of the barrio.
Luisa Scrofani and Joe Kalou in In the Heights. Photo © Clare Hawley
Luisa Scrofani gives a beautiful performance as Nina, returning to the Heights after a challenging first year at Stanford, bringing a sweet tone that disguises a penetrating vocal power to numbers like Breathe and a heartbreaking Everything I Know. Joe Kalou is earnest as Benny, in love with Nina but struggling to gain acceptance as a non-Latino from her overbearing father Kevin (Alexander Palacio, whose rendition of Inútil is very moving). Kevin’s wife Camilla, Ana Maria, is herself a force to be reckoned with, giving a spiky performance that gets plenty of laughs from the audience.
Margi De Ferranti is compelling as Usnavi’s Abuela Claudia, the grandmother with a heart condition straightening to become a vocal powerhouse in Paciencia y Fé.
Monique Montez, Libby Asciak, Stephen Tannos round out the cast, with Richard Valdez getting cheers from the audience as the ‘Piragua Guy’.
Visually the whole thing is stunning (Elizabeth Franklin’s costume design is also up for a Sydney Theatre Award) but some sound issues plagued the production on opening night, which became a problem at times given the sophistication of the lyrics and the speed with which they’re delivered, but this certainly wasn’t enough to derail a moving performance that left the audience on a high.
In the Heights is at the Sydney Opera House until January 20