Review: In The Heights, Southwark Playhouse

"My mom is Dominican-Cuban
My dad is from Chile and PR which means
I'm Chile..Domini-curican!
But I always say I'm from Queens!"

Amid the crashing and burning of ill-conceived big budget West End shows, it has been left to the smaller venues of London to carry the torch for musical theatre in the capital and currently leading the charge with what will surely end up being one of the productions of the year is the Southwark Playhouse. They secured the UK premiere of Tony winning show In The Heights which in itself is an achievement but more importantly, they assembled a team who have expertly reconceived it for the relatively intimate space to create some explosively exciting theatre.

Luke Sheppard’s production is pitch-perfect on every level. The choreography – Drew McOnie deserves every prize going – is fearless, fast and furious, Latin influences married with contemporary movement to create something that feels incredibly organic in its fluidity; Howard Hudson’s lighting is full of vibrant splashes of colour and well evokes the near-unbearable heat; and takis’ set design maximises the space brilliantly, suggesting the communal spirit and run-down feel of a hard-done-by enclave yet also finding room for a band of 8 along with a cast of 17.

Set in the blistering temperatures of a 3 day heat-wave in the New York Hispanic community of Washington Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music and lyrics integrates modern music styles into the world of theatre with powerfully effective results. Latin rhythms rub up against hip-hop rhymes, salsa flavour slow-grinds on silkily soulful beats, it’s a headily seductive mixture indeed and one which subsumes us entirely into this culture, locates us strongly in a world where the protection of community and the celebration of heritage is key.

And that is the crucial point of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ book for me, this evocation of community spirit is more important than any of the individual stories that are told, which aren’t perhaps as strongly defined as those who expect conventional narrative devices might desire. The show is never stronger than midway through the second half as the glorious flag-waving spirit of Carnaval del Barrio transmutes into the heart-rending power of Alabanza, tears of joy swiftly turning into those of sorrow, but all the while there’s a sense of togetherness about what it is these people are feeling.

Across a large ensemble who deliver to an exceptionally high standard, there are stand-out performances. Sam Mackay as the central Usnavi is just superb, his lyrical dexterity a pleasure to get lost in and he brings a wonderful warmth to the character. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt makes herself a dead cert for ‘Sofía Vergara the musical’ with a hilariously scene-stealing turn as salon owner Daniela, Emma Kingston’s Vanessa and Christina Modestou’s Nina brings different strengths to their determined women and Damian Buhagiar makes an extraordinary debut as the naïve but street-smart Sonny.

In the Heights is that rare thing, a show that really has no equal in London at the moment, not least for its strikingly contemporary approach (oh how I long for something similar to spring out of somewhere like South London) but also for the sheer integrity of every aspect of the production. Multi-million pound budgets are all very well but it is how they are utilised that is the key and with a fraction of the resources, this show demonstrates just how much can be achieved in creating one of the shows of the year. “Seguirás en mis recuerdos para siempre”. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 7th June

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