BWW REVIEW: The Colour And Energy Of The Close Knit Community Of Washington Heights Comes Alive In Blue Saint Production's Brilliant Production of IN THE HEIGHTS
Wednesday 21st March 2018, 7:30pm, Hayes Theatre
Blue Saint Production's staging of Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit musical IN THE HEIGHTS delivers energy, emotion and incredible music in the intimate space of Hayes Theatre. A decade after the musical premiered on Broadway, this story of the people of New York's Washington Heights holds a relevance to all audiences as it shares heart-warming and engaging stories of growing up, falling in love, having courage, taking risks, trusting, and caring as a community changes and grows whilst giving a glimpse into the migrant story of people looking for a better life and wanting to be part of a community.
Winner of two Drama Desk Awards, four Tony Awards, a Grammy, and three Laurence Olivier Awards as well as being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, IN THE HEIGHTS seemed to break the mould of American musicals as it incorporated the sounds of Hispanic and Latin America and rap music and put Hispanic and Latino Americans on stage and told their stories. Centred on the close knit community of Washington Heights at the northern end of Manhattan, young corner store owner Usnavi draws the audience into his world and introduces the people that make up his neighbourhood, most of which have immigrated or are descendants of immigrants from the islands of the Caribbean to find a better life in New York. Whilst they left their homelands to make money, the American dream hasn't quite been what they expected, living as second class citizens, forgotten and 'powerless' leading to the new generation considering whether the Heights are the best place for them or whether the stories of beaches, sun and sea breezes and a sense of belonging beckon them elsewhere.
Director Luke Joslin presents this work with a respect, honesty and integrity as he ensures that he uses Latino voices to recreate Lin-Manuel Miranda's much loved musical. A vibrant cast that are both brilliant performers and authentic representatives of the characters are gathered on Simon Greer's intricate set that allows the stories to weave between Usnavi's bodega, the Rosario's cab dispatch office, the stoop outside Abuela Claudia's home, Daniela's beauty salon, and the fire escapes that feature on most buildings. Greer's aesthetic combines the dirt of New York with the punctuations of colour and pride, with flags and signs conveying the heritage of the inhabitants. Elizabeth Franklin's costume design quickly conveys information about the individuals without making them look like caricatures. From the innocent simplicity of golden child Nina's pink tshirt and jeans to the sexy skin baring outfits of beauty salon worker Carla and the comfortable casualness of Usnavi's singlet and jeans accented with colourful shirts and a peak cap there is a realness to the characters as the diversity and individuality of the community is conveyed. Trudy Dalgleish's lighting focuses the locations whilst also allowing transitions of time and focus on thought with some fabulous creativity in reminding the audience that the story is current during Blackout.
The powerhouse vocals which capture the detail of Miranda's complex and quick lyrics are supported by Lucy Bermingham's brilliant band hidden at the back of the set and amplified with Anthony Lorenz's sound design that has the audience feeling the music as well as hearing it. Joslin has ensured that all the performers retain authentic accents throughout with renditions to rival the original Broadway cast recording and at times surpass it with the expression of understanding of the text. The immediacy of the space has the audience feeling part of the community rather than looking on at a distance which was how the bigger Broadway production felt. This is a story that wants to connect with its audience in a personal way and Joslin makes sure this is achieved with the understanding of the work and the audience engagement with the work feeling like it is being told to each individual in the audience with many performers capturing and holding the audience with direct eye contact. Joslin's creativity and innovation to fit everything into the smaller space without feeling cramped along with a stellar cast of seasoned and young up and comers has made this a production to easily rival the full stage Broadway production which your BWWSydney Senior Editor saw in 2010.
The entire cast are fabulous with no weaknesses anywhere. Ana Maria Belo is formidable as mother Camilla, pulling her headstrong husband and independent daughter into line with a gutsy Enough. As Kevin, Alexander Palacio ensures the hard working father is given a weariness and overbearing concern as the fatigue of building his business and trying to give Nina everything he didn't have is starting to show, particularly in his pain filled Inutil. Marty Alix is delightful as Usnavi's cheeky young cousin Sonny, ensuring that his laid back exterior shows signs of his awareness and care. Libby Asciak captures the innocent and ditzy Carla beautifully with perfect comic timing and a suitably bewildered but excited expression. Monique Montez gives the more mature Daniela a gravitas that rouses the community in Carnaval del Barrio but also ensures she is seen as 'one of the girls'. Stephan Tannos fits in as one of the boys as Graffiti Pete, Sonny's buddy, moving between supporting his friend and lurking on the sidelines when dismissed by Usnavi. The amusing 'comic' character of the Piragua Guy that randomly appears to provide light interludes and a reminder of the struggle between the little operator and bigger business is presented with delightful joy and optimism by Richard Valdez. Filling out the scenes and ensuring that the rhythm and movement of the latin culture is well presented, Samantha Bruzzese, Will Centurion, Michelle Rozario take on the roles of Sofia, Domingo and Yolanda, presenting some stunning dancing throughout and particularly during the scenes in the nightclub.
Margi de Ferranti presents the matriarch of the community Abuela Claudia with a gentle grace, making it easy to believe that everyone turns to her for comfort and support and her Paciencia y Fe is moving in its memory and melancholy mixed with joy. Tim 'Timomatic' Omaji is suitably confident and bold but also gentle in his expression of Benny, the young man wanting to make something of himself and move out of the shadow of his past that still has Kevin believing that he is not worthy of Nina. As Nina, Luisa Scrofani captures the college student's good girl nature that has been so used t trying to please as the neighbourhood's hope that someone can prove that they can rise above the working class world and get an education and make something more of themselves. Scrofani balances the innocence, guilt and sense of being lost with the love, hope and regret that she's letting people down with a poignant smile whilst ensuring that the audience see that the young girl grows through her understanding of the past and the love and care her friends and family have provided. Usnavi's love interest Vanessa is presented with a degree of worldliness and also fatigue with where she finds herself by Olivia Vasquez. Vasquez ensures that Vanessa is seen as somewhat of a contrast to the shy and reserved Usnavi, particularly as she dances with everyone at the club and also in her ambition to get out of the Barrio.
The standout performance however comes from Ryan Gonzalez as Usnavi, the role that Lin-Manuel Miranda originated. Gonzalez is adorably endearing as the orphan looking out for his cousin and the neighbourhood's 'adopted' grandmother Abuela Claudia. He captures the spirit of a typical young man wanting to be with the boys but also an innocence and social ineptitude when it comes to women, particularly in his awkwardness in asking Vanessa out. His physicality is nuanced and his voice is brilliant, capturing the rapid fire lyrics that Miranda is famous for with not only ease and clarity but also understanding, giving it texture and subtle expression without loosing pace or power. His growth from longing to go back to his parents homeland, the Dominican Republic, to realising that his has a place and a purpose where he is touching and powerful.
This is an incredible production that everyone should see. Whilst it captures American life, the story is relatable to migrant communities around the world. It talks of people that have left their homeland in search of a better life and the courage it takes to survive amongst the struggles and prejudice that greets them. The retention of heritage and culture makes them stronger whilst they know they must find a place in their new society and make that place home. Whilst this season is listed as sold out, keep checking with the theatre for returns. Hopefully the producers may also bring this production back for an encore season so more audiences can share in the joy of IN THE HEIGHTS.
16 March - 15 April 2018