In the Heights

SOH In The Heights - photo by Clare HawleySet in the predominantly Hispanic-American neighbourhood of Washington Heights in New York City, this musical charts the vicissitudes of a vibrant and fun loving community as they search for love and a sense of belonging while grappling with poverty and racism.

We see Usnavi pining to return to his beloved Dominican Republic. Nina, who was accepted into Stanford University, has some complicated news to relate to her parents when she returns for a visit. Benny has fallen in love with Nina, but will he be able to overcome her father’s prejudices and win the approval of her family? In the midst of this action a resident of the neighbourhood has won the lottery. Who is it? What impact will the money have on the community?

In the Heights has been a hit since its Broadway debut in 2008, where it won 4 Tony Awards. Director Luke Joslin enthuses over the way in which this musical changed the music theatre landscape when it first appeared: a rap musical! Joslin notes that the show places family, community, culture and human connection to the fore, as these concepts fulfill us most in the long run.

This production features an all Australian cast, and serves up the sounds of salsa, hip-hop, soul, rap and merengue. The dancing is described as explosive street dance, and features a satisfying smorgasbord of styles.

Lin-Manuel Miranda (Music and Lyrics) handles the social commentary with the adroitness he has gained international fame for. Quiara Alegria Hudes provides the Book. Since 2005 Miranda has achieved enormous renown with hits like Hamilton (which won many Tony Awards and a Pulitzer) and Moana (for which he received as Oscar nomination). You can even watch him freestyle rapping with President Obama online.

Stephen Lopez (Usnavi) delivers extended rap monologues which he handles with such skill that you never miss word. Luisa Scrofani played the part of Nina with great alacrity and subtlety. The show is also very funny, with great comic moments from Monique Montez and Marty Alix. Richard Valdez, who plays ‘Piragua Guy’, was a crowd favourite. The costuming (Elizabeth Franklin) is detailed and fun, anchoring the action in a specific time and place.

The villains in this show are not immediately identifiable: there are no easy answers. Roadblocks to human flourishing arise from within the protagonists. This is perhaps one reason the writing feels true to life and is ultimately satisfying. This is a vibrant, life affirming show that is fun for the whole family: one to catch if possible. It received the most enthusiastic standing ovation I’ve seen, a phenomenon common at Miranda’s shows.

In the Heights
Concert Hall – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Wednesday 16 January 2019 – 7.00pm
Season: 16 – 20 January 2019 (closed)

Image: In the Heights – photo by Clare Hawley

Review: Oliver Wakelin