In 2008, In The Heights won the Tony Award for Best Musical and I distinctly remember thinking it was a run-of-the-mill attempt at a modern-age version of West Side Story or Rent. However, I was much too quick to judge. Thanks to StageArt production company (executive producers Katherine Armstrong and Robbie Carmellotti), it has been brought to life in Melbourne for the first time, and I’ll say it now: it absolutely exceeded my expectations.
In The Heights (written by Quiara Alegria Hude) tells the story of young hopefuls living in El Barrio (The Spanish Harlem neighbourhood of New York City), who dream of a better life. The narrator is Usnavi (played by Stephen Lopez; Antony Thalia will take over from March 3rd), who runs a bodega (small convenience store) and does so in order support his adoptive grandmother and the town’s matriarch, Abuela Claudia (Francesca Arena). He is occasionally assisted by his cousin Sonny (a very entertaining Andrew Doyle), and is in love with Vanessa (Bianca Baykara), the town beauty working at a hair salon nearby, who dreams of one day having her own apartment in the West Village.
We also meet Nina (Anna Francesca Armenia), the only girl who ‘made it out’, thanks to her parents’ successful taxi dispatch company, which gave her the privilege of studying in California. She returns to El Barrio with the shameful news that she dropped out as a result of the pressure getting to her. Upon her return, she meets future love-interest, Benny (James Elmer), who works at the taxi dispatch. It’s a difficult summer for the dreamers, but as each character battles inner conflict, it is Abuela Claudia who always encourages them to never lose hope, and reminds them of what’s important in life.
The songs (music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda) are refreshingly original, managing to fit under a main theme despite being influenced by a few distinct genres. A majority of the songs involve rapping, such as “In The Heights” and “Hundreds Of Stories”, which Stephen Lopez’ Usnavi executed without fail. Then there were contemporary hits such as “Breathe” and “Paciencia y Fe”, in which Anna Francesca Armenia’s Nina and Francesca Arena’s Abuela Claudia (respectively) performed with impressive vocal ability. Personal favourites of mine were the “Piragua Song” – this was sung by the Piragua Guy (Gareth Jacobs) between scenes; a fun interlude – and “No Me Diga (You Don’t Say)” – a sassy number from the ladies at the hair salon. The sound is often electrifying, immersing you deeper into this passionate and colourful neighbourhood.
The show is imbued with Latin culture, effortlessly mixing hip hop, break dance and salsa without seeming like a talent showcase. I say this because musicals are often criticised depending on the balance of singing, dancing and acting. If there’s too much acting, it’s a play. If there’s too much singing or dancing, it’s a concert. In The Heights strikes a perfect balance. The equal fusion of the three makes for a consistently enjoyable watch.
Five minutes into the show, it is clear that each cast member is putting in two-hundred percent effort, which is remarkable for a relatively young cast (not to mention for an independently produced show). The characters are portrayed with an authenticity that is hard to come by. For the most part, the chemistry worked well; my only gripe is that some characters looked much younger than their supposed age, but that’s just me being picky. James Cutler does a wonderful job in directing, implementing key theatre techniques such as stage blocking and vocal projection whilst managing to keep every character interaction as natural as possible. It didn’t take long for me to empathise with them – I immediately felt like they were my family.
The highlight for me was Yvette Lee’s choreography. Not one beat is missed as each dancer moves with complete ease and focus, keeping in rhythm with the salsa/hip-hop inspired soundtrack.The movement seems to come from within the characters, who are passionate and ambitious and hopeful. The band, led by musical director Cameron Thomas, was electric; I could envision myself in Washington Heights, breathing in the air and feeling like I was home.I was surprised to find the band playing at the back of theatre, rather than in an orchestra pit below the stage. It made it all the more intimate, especially as the venue’s capacity is just short of 300 patrons.
Overall, the show surprised me in many ways, and the superbly talented cast had a wonderful dynamic you rarely experience. A big congratulations to the cast (including those I haven’t yet mentioned, such as Laura Marcucci, Sarah Calsina, Bianca Bruce, Peter Sette, Demi Sorono, Jake O’ Brien, Elandrah Eramiha, Joshua Martin, Ashleigh Kiven, Timothy Philip Doherty, Nicolas Mena and Samantha Bruzzese) for putting on a production so full of energy!
I definitely want to see In The Heights again before the season ends. Let’s see if I can restrain myself from getting up and dancing this time…
The show runs at Chapel Off Chapel until March 8, don’t miss out. For tickets, visit www.stageart.com.au