King’s Cross Theatre’s production of In The Heights comes at exactly the right time to ride the wave of adulation that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has created over on Broadway. Like Hamilton, the music of In The Heights derives inspiration from American hip-hop, thrown in with the lilting delivery and Latino beats that are the language of Washington Heights. Sam Mackay, as lead character Usnavi, does an excellent job of mastering the rapid-fire sing-song delivery familiar to anyone who has heard Miranda rap, and his performance continues to be excellent throughout, hitting exactly the right balance between confident businessman and raw emotion. Most of the dialogue is sung but, unlike Les Miserables, where it can feel self-indulgent and a tad monotonous, it feels natural, constantly pushing forward. It feels as if every sentence is a one line away from a musical number – and somehow, in the world they have created, that makes sense.
King’s Cross Theatre is a beautiful space, New York-city themed café and exposed railway sleeper walkways, and the set feels like an extension of this – subway lines pattern the floor, local stores and fire hydrants line the stage. A central focus of In The Heights is on the attachment the community has to the neighbourhood of Washington Heights, and the set only adds to this sense – the manhole covers become drums and pedestals, the fire escape stairs swing across stage to the beat of a ballad. It is the everyday experience of the diaspora in song and dance – the play scattered with untranslated Spanish, fully immersing us in their world.
It would be easy to see In The Heights as romanticised, but despite the sheer joy that permeates the entire production, it does not shy away from the very real problems that the characters face. From culture shock – within the same country – to the cycle of poverty, encompassing a (quite frankly brilliant) rap about gentrification and racism, there are very few issues facing modern-day America not at least alluded to. Nina’s (the clear-voiced Lily Frazer) arrival home from Stanford gets the ball rolling for the litany of hopes and dreams and frustrations that comprise the play. Yes, there is a magical fix, one that is hardly surprising, but we are so caught up in the drama of human emotion that it feels earned, and does not detract from the production as a whole.
The focus is so much on the community that when it starts to disintegrate so does the music, momentarily coming to a shuddering halt in the darkness. Gradually, the stage is lit by phone screens and torchlight in one of the most haunting scenes of the play, thanks to lighting designer Howard Hudson. There is almost constant movement throughout the play, with dazzling, whip-sharp group choreography that comes together from the more naturalistic individual dance steps. The traverse staging adds to this sense of momentum, forcing you dart your head back and forth, craning your neck to catch a glimpse of the actors who have danced up onto the stairs.
Although the play focuses on two central couples – Usnavi and Vanessa (Jade Ewan, who puts in a stunning turn as the beautician with dreams of getting out), and Benny (Joe Aaron Reid) and Nina – the rest of the cast more than do their bit. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (as wittily acerbic salon-owner Victoria) has the audience in stiches with her facial expressions alone, and David Badella (as Kevin, Nina’s father) provides real emotional depth during his raspingly vulnerable solo numbers.
In The Heights is a play about many things – about immigration, about family and community, about culture – but, perhaps most of all, it is a play about dreams. “What do I do when my dreams come true?” Abuela Claudia (Eve Polycarpou) cries, faced with decisions she never actually thought she would have to make. It is the question all of these characters, at some point, have to answer.