In The Heights, Kings Cross Theatre, review: ‘A schmaltzy, sizzling hit’

Jade Ewen (Vanessa), Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (Daniela) and Sarah Naudi (Carla) in In The Heights.

Jade Ewen (Vanessa), Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (Daniela) and Sarah Naudi (Carla) in In The Heights. Picture: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

Luke Sheppard’s Southwark Playhouse production is cleverly reconfigured for King’s Cross, says Marianka Swain.

King’s Cross, our latest “new city quarter”, is an apt setting for this 2008 Tony Award winner, which focuses on New York’s Dominican-dominated Washington Heights. The local immigrant population values their close-knit community, but gentrification threatens: as rents rise, the hipsters invade, and businesses and residents are priced out.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is a current Broadway sensation, and this earlier piece shows why. His score is a propulsive, richly textured fusion of hip-hop, rap, pop and Latin: musical theatre for the 21st century. West Side Story casts a long shadow, however, and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ book can’t compete, reducing hardship to Disney fable. There’s no drugs or serious crime, and all problems are solved by a group hug and fortuitous lottery win – a dreamy version of the American Dream. But Miranda’s innovative numbers thoughtfully address multicultural identity: how do you define who you are when you’re not sure where is home.

Luke Sheppard’s Southwark Playhouse production is cleverly reconfigured for King’s Cross (played in rep with The Railway Children). The sound balance is better, the traverse staging immersive, and Drew McOnie’s pulsating choreography remains a big sell. Athletic aerials, racy club salsa, expressive contemporary and silky-smooth partnering grow organically out of the storytelling, while maintaining a freewheeling urban vibe.

Sam Mackay’s bodega-owner Usnavi is a charismatic guide, while Lily Frazer and Joe Aaron Reid’s star-crossed lovers – one running from Stanford, the other seeking acceptance – provide soulful singing and unaffected performances. David Bedella brings gravitas as her conflicted father, ex-Sugababe Jade Ewen offers a strong presence if strained vocals, and Cleve September smooth moves. But two strong, sensual women dominate: Josie Benson and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, the latter astonishingly five months pregnant. Schmaltzy, yes, but an irresistible sizzling hit.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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