Hitting the Heights at the Hayes

Ryan Gonzalez as Usnavi in Blue Saint Productions’ IN THE HEIGHTS                             Photography: Grant Leslie

IN THE HEIGHTS playing at the Hayes Theatre is a stunning success.  There’s brio is the barrio and blood on the keyboard in this driving, pulsing, fast-paced offering from Blue Saint Productions. It’s a skyrocket of a show as it speeds through with firecracker dancing, singing and musicianship.

We meet Usnavi the bodega owner.  He is our guide to his little corner of Washington Heights and the mainly Hispanic-American community who live and work there.  There are the Limo Service owners Kevin and Camilla, their daughter Nina, newly returned on vac from Stanford, and employee Benny.  Across from them is a beauty salon owned by Daniella and her team, Vanessa and Carla.  Also around him is Sonny, his young cousin and his and the neighbourhood’s Abuela, Claudia.  It’s the hottest part of summer and the eve of July 4th and everyone is looking forward to the fireworks that will light up the starless sky above them.

IN THE HEIGHTS has music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Miranda began the work as a sophomore in college, was headhunted to Broadway and in its final form the show would be nominated for 9 Drama Desk and 13 Tony Awards. Miranda might go down in theatre history for the success of HAMILTON but this earlier work is a musical theatre staple.

This iteration is directed by Luke Joslin and it is no small challenge to put such a big story in such a small space.  His work is helped by a slanted scaffold set that avoids the trap of putting everything on wheels to annoyingly roll in an out.  But what I loved most about the direction was the focus on character.  Intimacy and story.  This production draws you in and then breaks out into the big production numbers eliding seamlessly back into the concerns of the individuals.

One of the elegant character choices is in Margi De Ferranti’s Abuela Claudia.  This performance absolutely avoids the tropes of old age.  This is a young ‘grandmother’ … more than age, it’s a hard life that’s the cause of her infirmity.  Strength of character in a performance replete with love, loss and the echoes of parental desperation that abound in this community.  And a solo, bathed in lighting primary coloured to echo the Cuban flag, which puts a wonderful voice on display.

For the most part, though, the cast is young, scrappy and hungry and Ryan Gonzalez as Usnavi is our engaging, loveable host.  Gonzalez never loses sight of his purpose in bringing the audience into the heart of this community.  His every interaction is inclusive with the sweetness of his nature and his generosity of spirit touching, not just those around him, but reaching over the footlights.  And it’s not just his acting.  His voice work is just as impressive, he can drop from rap-spoken straight into sung without a hint of strain or jar on the ears; and his diction in some of that high tempo work is a pure pleasure to hear.

A quick word about the terrific band under the direction of Lucy Bermingham.  Bongos and shakers and slow, single string plucked guitar sit equally masterfully with the fast and furious salsa arrangements for trumpet and keyboard.  There is a lot of exposition through the songs and sequences with just dialogue are few.  That is one busy band.  And superb mixing by the way.  Never too loud and voices sitting perfectly on top of the music combine with subtle engineering to make the duet blends rich and warm.

Luisa Scrofani as Nina

This is especially true of the lovers Nina (Luisa Scrofani) and Benny (Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji) who make a lovely couple with palpable high range chemistry.  Scrofani is a powerhouse in this role.  Her acting flawless; getting Nina’s age right is very difficult and Scrofani has pitched her perfectly.  Plus it’s a big voice used with precision and power.  Especially at the alto end of her range and in the sprechgesangish sections.  Omaji also nails the performance, handling the arc from conceited self-concern to the gentleness of a lover without losing character.  And his displays of aggression are organic and believable without losing audience empathy.

The chauvinist Latin man is also a troublesome character to portray but Alexander Palacio as Kevin does such a great job.  Palacio is minus the hostile macho while still being true to the character.  He is helped by a stunning lighting colour choice which gentles and softens his appearance during his solo, giving him the warmth and intimacy that the interior monologue requires.  And I loved the performance of Ana Maria Belo as his wife Camilla.  With sensational body language, she blends the parent and wife with sympathetic depth and humour, giving the character a wry realism that is delicious to watch.

When it comes to body language, there is a masterclass going in inside Olivia Vasquez’ performance as Vanessa.   Thrillingly sexy, Vasquez wields a mean broom and triple threats her way through the role.  Her singing is exciting with belted top notes to die for and her dancing is just a treat.  All the choreography (Amy Campbell) is just wonderful is this show.  It is whole body work with total immersion in the Latin rhythms and absolutely pinpoint expression.  This allows the livewire ensemble to be constantly on the move during the big sequences with the dynamic nature of rhumba and tango creating a spectacle which makes toes itch to tap in time.

And a special note here about Monique Montez (Daniella) who takes it all to yet another level with her joyously robust high notes while dancing up a storm on a milk crate in platform shoes.  Skill ascendant!  Not to mention the smooth moves of Richard Valdez as the Piragua Guy in a fun display of comic timing.

Perfect timing too in  the lighting for this show.  The changes are as dynamic as the music and the wash is moody and shadowed in an analogue based rig which has a cross as its motif.   The lights thrum slightly in the near blackout to the rhythm of the drum for ambient excellence and the symbolic use of elements like the star cluster give weight and power to the themes.  As does the costuming which is detailed, down to watches and crosses and earrings, while dressing them to thrill and putting the cast’s assets on serious display (that red dress … whew hoo) without any encumbrances in the dancing and movement.

Joslin has very tight control over all the physical elements to tell the story while he has cleverly interspersed the themes within the production.  This is exemplified by the circle of grief and the community’s social consciousness personified in the character of Sonny … Marty Alix in a lightly played, nicely grounded performance.

IN THE HEIGHTS is peopled by characters who are not going to miss their shot and you will love them as I did.  Hectic and heartfelt it is a beautifully realized and produced show.  And, take my advice to stay in at interval.  Where else can you get a chance to sing along and dance in your seat to Quando Quando Quando?  It wasn’t just me!

Blue Saint Productions [Facebook] IN THE HEIGHTS continues at the Hayes Theatre [Facebook] until 15th April.