I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to seeing In The Heights. It has a great reputation as the winner of three Olivier awards; it features one of my favourite stage actors, David Bedella; it’s choreographed by man-of-the-moment Drew McOnie; and it’s being staged at the Kings Cross Theatre round the back of the station, which would be a venue new to me. What’s not to look forward to? When I realised that it would be closing on 8th January, I knew that our Christmas break would be our last opportunity.
So let’s start off with some observations about the theatre itself. Tucked unpromisingly away at the end of some long tarpaulined corridors by the back entrance to Kings Cross station, we wondered a) whether we’d come to the right place and b) if either of us would get out alive. However, eventually the paths lead to a wide, open bar/reception area, which was full of excited people milling around, eating and drinking – and the overall atmosphere is terrific. There was a real sense of occasion, an almost dangerous vibe, that you rarely get in some of the more established and rarefied London theatres. You have a choice of platforms to watch the show from – I don’t think it makes a difference which as the show is performed in traverse, so either way you get excellent sight lines.
It does however mean that it takes longer than you expect to go from the bar to the auditorium, as all your fellow theatregoers make their way through just two small entrances (one to each platform). They didn’t start letting people in until about ten minutes before the show was due to start, and there was no way everyone would be in place in that short space of time. So if you’re the kind of person who finds announcements like “the show will begin in one minute” sweat-inducing when there are still dozens of people in front of you, just make sure you hover near the platform doors before they are opened. Inside, the acting space is long and narrow, but that’s nothing a talented choreographer can’t use to their advantage. I thought it was a great little venue – and they’ve even gone to the trouble to provide thoroughly decent wine for sale as well.
The show itself is set in Washington Heights, a Dominican-American neighbourhood in New York City, and depicts the love lives, the ambitions, the desperations and the exhilarations of living in that locale. You’ve got Usnavi, who runs the little bodega, working hard to make ends meet, entranced by the beautiful Vanessa but almost too enfeebled by life to see his way to trying to build a relationship. You’ve got Kevin, who runs the taxi company, taking out expensive loans so that he can finance his daughter Nina through college – even though she’s dropped out and her heart is no longer in it. You’ve got Daniela, who runs the hair salon, trying to steer the younger people in what she thinks is the right direction in their careers and in their love lives. You’ve got Nina and Benny, she the taxi “heiress”, he the radio controller, forging a relationship despite her father’s disapproval. You’ve got Sonny, Usnavi’s smartass brother, in danger of letting success pass him by, although he is not without ambition. And you’ve got Abuela Claudia, who wins the lottery. Over the course of two hours and twenty minutes their lives get stretched and subjected to all kinds of emotional battering, but in a relatively unusual turn of events, there’s a really feel-good and uplifting end to the show that leaves most of the characters in a better place than they were at the beginning. You could almost call it a happy ending.
The story is fast moving and rewarding, and the songs are emotional, uplifting and atmospheric. I loved Drew McOnie’s joyous choreography – I knew I would; it hits you from the first instant and shakes you up as inventive routine follows inventive routine. In response to the lively Latino sounds, he creates a brilliant blend of hip hop, salsa and rap, bringing a show that has its roots somewhere between West Side Story and Rent firmly into the 21st century. Mind you, he is blessed with a simply superb ensemble who live every inch of those dance moves. The production looks beautiful too, with atmospheric sets and costumes – and indeed, with Nina, Daniela, Vanessa and Camila all squeezed into figure-hugging salsa dresses, things often get a little hot under the collar. Gabriella Slade’s costume design for the show is a true work of art.
One of the muffled announcements that was made twice before the show, and which, on neither occasion, did I catch properly, listed all the cast-changes for that performance, rattled off at great speed because there were so many of them. I understood hardly any of it. So, apologies in advance if I get any of the performers’ names wrong. I did, however, catch that David Bedella would not be performing (sad) and that the role of Kevin would be played by Vas Constanti. Nothing against Mr Constanti, but the role of Kevin is quite mundane anyway, and I think would need someone of the charisma of Mr Bedella to make it stand out. The other major male role is that of Usnavi, played brilliantly by Sam Mackay; a central, Everyman character, and a force for good and kindness. Mr Mackay has a wonderful stage presence and is a great song and dance man.
Gabriela Garcia, who plays Nina, is one of those can’t take your eyes off her performers. She looks stunning; she runs the gamut of emotions with apparently effortless ease; and she has a beautiful singing voice. Sarah Naudi’s Vanessa is another great performance with a dynamic emotional click; and Aimie Atkinson’s Daniela is a lot of fun to watch, as she revels in the attention of being the boss and, let’s not deny it, looks super sexy in that dress. Among the supporting cast, I really liked Damian Buhagiar as Sonny, conveying all those recognisable signs of being the irrepressible little brother – and he’s also an amazing dancer. Juliet Gough is superb as Camila, clearly the power behind the throne at the taxi company, and, among the ensemble, Genesis Lynea has a brilliant stage presence and is a most stylish dancer.
When the show ends, you feel a satisfying sense of exhilaration and real humanity. Congratulations to this most talented and energetic cast on bringing a little piece of Latino New York to Kings Cross. Possibly the greatest compliment I could give this is show is that you don’t feel like you’re in London, you really do feel transported to Washington Heights. Closing on the 8th January, but I can’t believe that will be the last we will see of this little gem.
Production photos by Johan Persson