BWW REVIEW: Blue Saint Production's IN THE HEIGHTS Brings Washington Heights To The Sydney Opera House
Wednesday 16th January 2019, 7pm, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
Following a successful Hayes Theatre season in March 2018 Blue Saint Production's IN THE HEIGHTS has returned for an encore season in the Concert Hall of Sydney Opera House. Luke Joslin's (director) interpretation of Lin Manuel Miranda's hit musical about the inhabitants of Washington Heights delighted the opening night audience in the iconic venue.
For the return season Matty Ryan has opened up Simon Greer's set for a broader downstage space making use of the proscenium space created in the normally open concert hall. As per the Hayes Theatre staging, the Usnavi's Bodega remains the focal point of the performance with the walls now more obviously angled to the store. This alteration in layout provides a better view of the Rosario's dispatch and Daniella's Beauty Salon. Joslin has ensured that the larger space is fully utilised, particularly for the more intimate pieces with notable performances from Stephen Lopez as Usnavi. Choreographer Amy Campbell has engaged two additional ensemble members to fill out the crowd scenes and add to the excitement of the dance numbers like The Club and Carnaval del Barrio. The dance numbers work better in this larger space, allowing the skilled latin dancers to be seen rather than be an whirl of bodies. The height of the Concert Hall also allows for a more impressive lighting design, particularly for the fireworks with lights high up in the ceiling giving a glow as if the sky really were filled with Fourth of July celebrations. A downfall of the Concert Hall however comes with the height of the stage in relation to the first few rows of seats which renders the design of the stage surface as a cross walk and roads unobservable. As with the original season, Lucy Bermingham's 9 piece band is tucked behind the 'shelves' of the corner store allowing them to be featured as the 'house band' for The Club.
In addition to the two new ensemble performers (Dayton Tavares and Romina Villafranca), the Opera House season sees the roles of Usnavi and Benny played by new performers, Stephen Lopez and Joe Kalou respectively. Lopez captures the essence of Usnavi as the hardworking shy orphan well with solid vocals, nuanced physicality and good comic timing. Lopez creates a slightly worldlier Usnavi who feels a bit older whilst still having an endearing likability. Lopez ensures that Usnavi is seen as caring of his friends and community whilst also being socially awkward around his crush Vanessa. Kalou's portrayal of young dispatch driver and aspiring business owner Benny is a somewhat unbalanced. His intent is clear but his vocals exhibited signs of either illness or fatigue and were possibly hampered by the sound technology as pieces weren't as in tune as one would expect. Other performances also seemed to struggle with landing on the centre of notes indicating that there may have been feedback issues in the sound technology.
The sound technology issues aside, which will hopefully be dealt with before the end of the show's short run, this large stage production is a wonderful achievement for Blue Saint Productions and is the biggest return season staging of a show to originate at Hayes Theatre. This is a fun, energetic, emotional and engaging production of the musical that broke the mould of American musicals and bought the sounds of Latin America and rap music to the main stage along with bring more diversity to theatre.