In The Heights won the Best Musical Tony in 2008. Melbourne independent company StageArt presents the Australian premiere and it’s an absolute winner. It nails the tone of a show that’s rooted in New York, shows how to cast place-specific pieces, and explodes with amazing talent.
With music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also starred in the Broadway production), its first professional production was in 2005, it was on off-Broadway in 2007 and on Broadway from 2008 to 2011. It won more a few more Tonys, a couple of Drama Desk Awards and a Grammy, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Set in the mostly-Latino area of Washington Heights in New York, it’s the story of Usnavi (Stephen Lopez), who still runs the tiny bodega (corner store) his immigrant parents bought and dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic. What keeps him in The Heights is no money, his young cousin (Andrew Doyle), his adopted abuela (Francesca Arena) and the hope that local girl Vanessa (Bianca Baykara) might notice that she never has to pay for her coffee. Meanwhile, the Rosario family (Clarence Marshall and Bianca Bruce) are dealing with the loss of their taxi business when their daughter (Anna Francesca Armenia) drops out of Standford and falls for their non-Latino employee (James Elmer), and the local unisex salon is moving to the Bronx and the staff (Laura Marcucci Sarah Calsina) are going with it. Too much is changing when Usnavi finds out that someone in the neighbourhood has won $96 000 in the lottery.
The book, by Quiara Alegría Hudes, works out a bit too easily, but it’s overcome by the music and the undying passion for the place and people that created it.
The cast, also including Peter Sette, Gareth Jacobs and an awesome ensemble, and the off-stage band are simply sensational. There are some rough edges and over-earnest moments, but there isn’t a weak link on the stage as everyone pours heart, understanding and energy into a work that they obviously love.
James Culter’s direction keeps the story on track and the characters real, and Cameron Thomas’s musical direction lets the music beat the emotion of every song (from Latin to Hip-Hop to Rap) and develops very good sound in the notoriously-difficult Chapel off Chapel theatre. Meanwhile, Yvette Lee’s choreography creates so much energy that it’s a wonder the theatre stays grounded.
In the Heights could fill a much bigger stage and venue, so take advantage of the relative intimacy of Chapel off Chapel. It’s a show that is unlikely to get a commercial production in Australia, but if anyone’s looking, this one is ready to go.