Not so such much a runaway hit as a stay-in-the-neighbourhood hit, IN THE HEIGHTS as directed by Luke Joslin brings a Washington Heights alive in a vibrant, energetic production with the closeness of community at its heart. No mean feat on a stage as wide as the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. We love our House and audiences always have a sense of occasion in the iconic building but this was beyond expectations. A night to bring the whole audience to their feet after a show that vibrates the barrio with brio onstage and brass behind.
The show was conceived, and has music and lyrics, by Lin-Manuel Miranda with the book by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Joslin directed the show at Hayes Theatre last year. This production has many cast in common and shares musical direction from Lucy Bermingham and choreography from Amy Campbell. It was a bona-fide hit then. And will be now.
Almost at curtainup is an ensemble number, ‘In the Heights’ from the whole company. It leaps and salsas across the footlights with a clear statement of intent. “Dancin’ singin’ and celebratin’”, it is a visual feast of flash and movement which is not just exciting to watch, it is character and relationship setting so that in the next moment when the red flicks to blue and green and the lead character, Usnavi, stands still downstage we are drawn to know him. And to know the people he knows, to have him guide us through the story and this world.
In Joslin’s direction fire and stillness are balanced for emotion and engagement and his faith in his fine cast is in those songs when stasis simply reaches out with voice and a surfeit of heart. Beginning with a charismatic and empathetic performance from Stevie Lopez as Usnavi who is sometimes goofy or upbeat and sometimes low but always connected to those around him. Also heartfelt and endearing is Luisa Scrofani as Nina. Her ‘Breathe’ solo early on works on so many different levels. It advances the narrative, brings the superb voices and orchestration together behind her sweet and powerful voice in a delicious way and her manifest star quality is in the tears in her eyes.
Teamed with Joe Kalou’s Benny “Benny is in the despatch yo! ” the voice blend and rapport between the young lovers is delightful to watch. And he has some serious moves on the mic. Nina’s mother, Camilla (Ana Maria Belo) slaps and pokes and gestures high in the air ultimately, comically, bringing the commonsense to her father, Kevin. Played again by Alexander Palacio, this character is splendidly placed in the Latin American context without any macho nastiness merely pride and the pressure of family aspirations.
The extended family of this troupe is personified by Daniela (Monique Montez), all hands and high hair and industrial strength protectiveness and Carla (Libby Asciak) with surface and sparkles and heart of gold. The female energy of ‘Me No Diga’ is joyous. Then there is the ripping performance of Olivia Vasquez as Vanessa. Her solo work in ‘It Won’t be Long Now’ is soul shredding and once again the direction takes your heart and squeezes it with love. Vasquez has the distance of an abused child and the hard won independence of a young woman who wants more and the themes are extended by the spot-on choreography. The men are sexy and alive with want to foreground her autonomy. Sooo good.
The whole ensemble are fantastic. Margi de Ferranti reprising her role in a full voiced, big hearted Abuela Claudia. Also reprising a great fun role is Richard Valdez as the Piragua Guy. Marty Alix is fun and driven and youthful and lively as Sonny and his mooning over Nina is lovely characterisation.
Orchestrated to lay percussion below and horn on top, the music is pulsing with style and in songs like ‘Useless’ the music in the rise and fall of his emotive chest heaving is heartbeat-synchronicity. The production is mixed with excellence and the audio for the fireworks is brilliantly created.
The lighting, too, is designed for highlighting the voices. (Trudy Dalgleish) Using a swing red as the spark, the move of the palette is discreetly limited to rock and roll primary blues and greens for the vivacious and gentle lavender and smoky yellow for softness. ‘Sunrise’ is blue and beautiful not tacky orange or red. The costuming, however, hits the red head on and with detail galore. (Elizabeth Franklin) The impossibility of a hummingbird on Usnavi’s shirt contrasts with the skintight and with the flowery and flowing of the women’s skirts.
Choreographed to use the whole stage and levels with ease and fluidity, there are hip sways and tumbles and travel and shoulder holds to give dynamism without excessive business. Explored is a whole range of style within the genre and the electric crackle of dance excellence is a big part of what pulls you to your feet for the standing ovation. The dance off for Vanessa’s favour is just cracker!
You don’t see it often but opening night had a whole theatre standing ovation for IN THE HEIGHTS. 1500 plus excitable family, friends, critics, paying public were loath to let the cast go as they stood across the front of the stage. It’s a bona-fide hit in a very short run, tango to a ticket before it’s too late.