So we have a small, independent cab company, a small independent hair salon, a very small, very independent bodega; we have street vendors and (mobile) front stoops and fire hydrants and the A train subway station and coffee and piraguas (shaved-ice coolers) and extreme heat with Con Edison gone walkabout and an insular, family-first, Dominican-American society plus, of course, an obligatory baseball bat and inevitable bad-ass street dancing. Yeah, we’re in the Heights and these particular Heights are Washington Heights, north of Central park, beyond Harlem, up around 181st street, named after Fort Washington, built to repel the British from Manhattan Island and the burgeoning New York City in 1776.
“In The Heights” is a kaleidoscopic blast, a swirling mix of energy and colour and rap and street art and street cred and hip-swinging and tight mini-dresses (girls) and loose low-slung jeans (boys) with a plethora of Converse pumps and requisite shouts of “Yo!”and “Hey Man!” It never pauses for breath – which is its biggest fault.
Boy with jaunty hat (18 going on 35) fancies independent-minded girl (18 going on 18); other boy, ambitious with GSOH, fancies other ambitious LHUS (lost-her-uni-scholarship) girl with mean, nasty father (but really with heart of gold); old lady (with actual heart of gold) kind of adopted Jaunty Hat when orphaned as a child, and she wins Lotto. Vandal graffiti artist keeps tagging Jaunty Hat’s bodega but turns out to have a heart of gold.
The Traverse stage at the wonderful purpose-built Kings Cross Theatre (opened 2014) suits the action of the show well. But it doesn’t help the sound. This is a musical so the sound needs to be good, in fact more than good. The narrative of the show is carried by the lyrics and if you can only focus on 60-70 per cent of the words then you are going to be left hanging by the plot line. Those well-known New York buskers, Nuance and Subtlety, have been evicted from this particular ’hood and the show is the worse for that. Even the minor key ballads are belted out like there is no tomorrow and the band, the nine-piece remote combo (presumably recorded), at times sounds like a cacophonous jumble intoning raucous off-key harmonies. Some of the ensemble numbers – particularly the one performed in darkness (“Blackout”) are impossible to decipher. It is difficult enough to get pure sound when you have two separate banks of audience facing each other, speaker position being key, but add in mike-balance going AWOL and Sound Designer Gareth Owen needs to give it his full attention and listen to what’s going on. And more importantly, what’s being missed. The mantra seems to be that if it’s loud enough then no-one will notice, or care, when it’s out of tune.
Lily Frazer, as lead female character Nina, is the biggest culprit in this. Yes, she has a big, booming voice. But her accuracy in hitting some of the notes isn’t always entirely convincing, even in mid-register. Musical Director Phil Cornwall and Musical Supervisor Tom Deering need to get hold of her and sort this out – she clearly can’t recognise it herself. It’s strange, in this advanced-tech age, that there is the technology to adjust voice reproduction as it happens but it appears not to be in use here: once again, Gareth Owen, it’s a job for you.
There are some very good people in this: Christine Allado as Jaunty Hat’s love interest Vanessa has a lovely voice – and hits all the right notes – as well as showing her range from determined ’hood-break-outer to coquettish tease. Joe Aaron Reid as love-lorn, put-upon, I’m-gonna-start-my-own-business cab dispatcher Benny is effective as singer and actor and David Bedella as nasty-but-heart-of-gold Kevin, Nina’s father, shows in his main song “Inútil” (“Useless”) that he can sing with empathy and passion. Sam Mackay as Jaunty Hatted Usnavi (named after a US Navy sign), 18 going on 42 (he seems to age as the show goes on) is a great performer, particularly with his rap narratives, but is completely mis-cast. Seriously, 18 year old-ish beauty Vanessa isn’t going to give him a second glance.
Hair Salon owner Daniella, local gossip with serrated tongue, is played superbly by Philippa Stefani and is the highlight of the show. She cuts and lashes and lacerates and needles but, of course, she has a heart of gold. I think she misses a trick, though, when commenting on how much free coffee Vanessa is getting from old Jaunty Hat: she neglects to call him out as a cradle-snatcher.
Howard Hudson’s Lighting Design is very effective complementing the clever set by Takis. The show is loud and brash and enjoyable to an extent but audiences need downtime to collect their thoughts and focus on the story and characters. Director Luke Sheppard is obviously going for the full-on, blast-furnace experience but I think this squeezes out the drama of the piece – there’s plenty of light but no shade, there’s plenty of sound and fury but no verisimilitude. As a long-running production, that started life at the Southwark Playhouse, perhaps it’s time to take stock and re-work.
Review by Peter Yates
Welcome to Washington Heights, where life’s a struggle but the streets are jumping to the irresistible rhythms of love, passion, hopes and dreams. This smash-hit, Tony Award-winning musical is a joyously uplifting tale of young love in a community on the brink of change, set in one bustling neighbourhood where everyone knows everybody, and the breeze carries the sweet sounds of three generations of music.
Back to spice up London following its hugely acclaimed, sell-out season at the Southwark Playhouse, In The Heights is a thrilling evening of unforgettable songs and amazing choreography infused with the scorching rhythms and vibrant energy of a Manhattan heatwave. A word-of-mouth sensation on Broadway that had audiences coming back time and time again, this life-affirming story will enthral and delight audiences of all ages.
Booking Until: 30th Oct 2016