Rachel Bailey spent an evening at the King’s Cross Theatre to see what’s so special about the Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights.
I have never seen a musical that encompasses hip hop, rapping, strobe lights, street slang, romantic duets, a love story, a death, a fraught father-daughter relationship and a happy ending before.
And if you’d told me that I’d be witnessing – and immensely enjoying – a show that included all these elements, I might have laughed in disbelief. It all just sounds like a little bit too much, don’t you think?
But actually, as In the Heights proves over the space of two and a bit energetic hours, it works.
It’s an American product, there’s no doubt about it, but In the Heights hasn’t tried to barge its way onto the West End like other musicals have in the past.
Instead, the musical has made base in the King’s Cross Theatre, where it shares the space with The Railway Children (which plays largely matinees).
Think of The Railway Children as the little sister musical, warming up the stage each afternoon before the attention-seeking older brother comes on in the evening to pull out all the stops.
Pictured: Sam Mackay as Usnavi and the cast of In The Heights. (Photo credit: Johan Persson).
In the Heights has got a very youthful feel to it – ideal for GTOs who organise for younger individuals. It’s written by American composer, rapper and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda who’s in his thirties, and his production is about as far from an Andrew Lloyd Webber classic as you can get.
In a nut shell, In the Heights is about a rundown Latino neighbourhood in New York struggling to stay on its feet. Think parents selling their business to pay for their daughter’s education and the local shopkeeper having his business vandalised.
Cue lashings of community spirit indicated by songs stuffed full of major chord sequences and complicated dance numbers that are guaranteed to have the audience on their feet by the end.
There are a few sobering moments amongst the colourful lights, breakdancing and raucous jokes – remember that death I mentioned before? – but overall this is a feel-good musical.
Let’s talk cast. It’s difficult to pick out one show stopping performer; In the Heights is very much dependent on the entire company, both in the way of moving the plot along (remember, it’s about a whole community) and in the intricate and contemporary dance routines which are the real highlight of the show.
Perhaps because of this, I did not personally feel as connected with the characters as I have during other musicals – but that didn’t mean I enjoyed it any less.
Pictured: Lily Frazer as Nina and Joe Aaron Reid as Benny. Photo credit: Johan Persson).
However, there are a few names certainly worth a mention. Sam Mackay, in the role of the well-intentioned Usnavi, puts on a rock solid performance throughout, complete with some amazing rapping.
Another rapper and singer is Joe Aaron Reid who plays Benny, and in my opinion he gives the strongest vocal performance overall. Additionally, Lily Frazer plays a great female lead as Nina, and her vocals are also remarkable.
I must also mention Josie Benson here, who plays Nina’s mum Camila. Her one big number, Enough, was the only song that provoked whoops and cheers from the audience, and I wish she’d been given more in the big number department.
Overall criticism? There were a few bum notes from more than one lead vocalist. Not many, but more than one might expect from a show that’s won four Tony Awards and a Grammy.
In the Heights is many things; sassy, fast paced, and carried off with an admirable energy. It doesn’t necessarily have the vocal quality of a long-running show like Les Miserable or Wicked, but it does have a raw passion that really works with the plot.
And there is so much upbeat music; always a winner if you’re partial to a bit of a jig about in your seat when you go to see a musical.
In the Heights is booking at the King’s Cross Theatre until October. Groups of eight or more will receive discounted rates for Monday to Friday and Sunday 6pm performances.
(Lead image photo credit: Johan Persson).