Friday, 23 May 2014

In the Heights Rocks Southwark

A West End worthy production about immigrants? Minorities? With parts of song and dialogue in a language other than English? Sounds unlikely, but that's just what In the Heights is. It's a energetic explosion of dance, colour and young talent.

And that talent is considerable. Sam MacKay, as Usnavi, guides us through the stories of this Washington Heights corner neighbourhood with his broadway style rapping - if there is such a thing. It's more a broadway-washed Eminem than Daddy Yankee reggaeton, but it's entirely enjoyable and pitched perfectly at the musicals audience. Damian Buhagiar as Sonny, however, stole the show for me. It's hard to believe that In the Heights is his professional debut because there isn't even a hint that he might be nervous. He is perfect in his portrayal of a young man finding his voice, finding his place in the world and finding out how to survive. Plus, he's has endless energy and dance moves that manage to stand out in a production full of stand-out dancers.

Photo credit: Robert Workman
All of the dancing is impressive. The choreography drives forward at every opportunity and provides plenty of jaw-drop moments, especially in the intimate space of the Southwark Playhouse. Some of the women are dancing in heels that might be classed as weapons by the TSA, but that doesn't stop them from knocking out killer moves with grit and commitment. The men are no slouches either, throwing in breakdance standards and some impressive lifts. The fight scene at the end of the first act is a particular highlight. Just when one high impact number wraps up, another comes storming in. At two and a half hours, it's a long enough show, but the times flies by and the show leaves you reeling the in the wake of it's power and energy.


Photo credit: Robert Workman
The technical elements of this production are all impressive, from a simple but effective set to excellent lighting and a outstanding band. The costumes seem a little more early 90s, as does the boombox in the opening scene. I don't object to that - in fact, I was busy reminiscing about my own US city days in the 1990s, until it was suddenly mentioned that it was 2014 and everyone pulled out mobile phones. New York might be another country, but I'm not sure they wear that many neon crop-tops or high-waisted jeans.

It was refreshing to watch a production that wasn't whitewashed, but surely they could have found a few more non-white actors to take on the roles of what should really be an all-minority ensemble. It should be noted that ensemble member Gabriela Garcia is from Mexico. Perhaps she deserves the credit for the fact that the Spanish is spoken fairly well, by clearly non-native speakers and the cultures are more or less respected, though the "Dios mio" joke wore thin for me.There are so few roles written specifically for non-white actors in big-budget musicals that it seems that an opportunity has been lost to launch the careers of a whole generation of actors who might otherwise find themselves confined to bit parts. Surely by failing to cast an all minority, mainly Latino cast the production has missed some of what the book is saying - where do you go, what do you do when the opportunities are always for someone else? When being the best where you're from doesn't count in the middle/upper class white world? When excelling in your culture, in your home, counts for nothing if you can't also excell, against the odds in someone else's world that doesn't really want you, will make no accommodations for you, and doesn't appreciate what makes you different?


Photo credit: Robert Workman
Still, this production is asking these questions. It's asking about the immigrant experience. It's asking about the experience of people living and growing up in poverty. It's asking about the cyclical nature of immigration and poverty - as one of the characters says, before the Latinos moved in, it was the Irish. It's asking its audiences to look beyond J-Lo to see the people that really live in our low-income, immigrant neighborhoods.

In the tradition of immigrants, though moving a little be faster than most, this transplant from Broadway won't be in South London for ever. In the Heights will be climbing the social ladder in no time and heading to the West End. Best catch it while it's still raw and brimming with new talent.

In the Heights plays at the Southwark Playhouse until 07 June 2014. Tickets £22.

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