Review: In the Heights – Sydney Opera House

He changed Broadway forever with the phenomenon, Hamilton but before that Lin Manuel Miranda burst onto the Great White Way with the quadruple Tony Award winning smash hit, In the Heights. A first of its kind, a rap musical, In the Heights wowed audiences and critics alike with its demonstration of how contemporary musicals can leap into the next generation. Having played at the Hayes Theatre Company in 2018, the sold out season from Blue Saints Productions has transferred to the Sydney Opera House for a short run in the 2000-seat Concert Hall…and judging by last night’s audience, they’re likely to be a sell out again!

The show tells the story of the vibrant Latin American community of Washington Heights in the concrete jungle where dreams are made of, New York City. At the centre of it all, we follow Usnavi (originally played by Miranda) running his family owned Bodega and looking after the elder Cuban woman who practically raised him, Claudia, as well as being a role model for his cousin, Sonny. In the barrio he pines for Vanessa who works at the neighbouring salon, whose only dream right now is to leave the barrio for bigger and better things. Meanwhile, Nina, a childhood friend of Usnavi’s, returns home from her first year at college with some rather surprising news for her parents, who run the local cab company, spending their life savings on building a better life than they had for their daughter.

Opening on a simple, yet detailed, set of the barrios of New York City’s Washington Heights, director Luke Joslin and set supervisor Matt Ryan have carefully chosen how they wanted to utilise the space given to them in the Opera Houses’ concert hall. A much more expansive, traditional theatre-like stage to the one at the Hayes Theatre Co, audiences are offered suggestions of the compact barrio that we are going to see our characters’ stories play out. Usnavi’s corner shop, Carla and Nina’s Salon, Abuela Claudia’s apartment and the Rosario Car & Limousine company all have their own playing areas and the rest is for the exchanges on the streets of New York, given life through the use of a boxed of, and sometimes effective, lighting design by Trudy Dalgleish.

Luke Joslin, with an extensive background in both acting and directing, has chosen how to effectively bring this musical to the socio-political scene we find ourselves in today, both at home and abroad. With a subtle jab at President Trump’s (in the opening scenes radio interference soundscape) views on the border wall “crisis”, as well as lines adapted for an Australian audience, Joslin has embedded his obvious love and passion for this musical into his directing style.
The fiery scenes at the club and numbers such as ‘96,000’ are given flare and spice through Amy Campbell’s choreography. Campbell knows how to get these actors to move and the crowd cheered immensely when the Latin dancing was highlighted front and centre. It almost made you want to get up there and join in.
Musical Director, Lucy Bermingham, and her band brought the sounds and rhythms of salsa, soul, hip-hop and merengue to life, never missing a beat and even getting their own (and in my opinion, innovative) moment to shine.

By showcasing a diverse, talented and eclectic cast, as well as a contemporary score, we are reminded what heights a modern musical can actually reach in the changing landscape of theatre.

Leading the show as Usnavi, Stevie Lopez is Lin Manuel Miranda incarnate. His mannerisms, cadences, gesticulations and ability to rap a mouthful of lyrics in a single breath, all reflect Miranda’s creation of the character. Yet, somehow, Lopez brings his own form of Usnavi to the stage, he’s not just mimicking someone else’s Usnavi, it was like he was living Usnavi. The standing ovation on his bow was well deserved.
Olivia Vasquez’s Vanessa was played fiercely, not just in her fiery moves on the dancefloor but also in her temper and ambition to strive for something more.
Marty Alix as Sonny had his moment, that got applause from some of the audience, in ‘96,000’ which made my jaw drop at the sheer feat of lyrics he spouted while hip-hop dancing across the stage. With comic timing and rhythm, he was perfect for the role.
Stage veteran Margi de Ferranti as Abuela Claudia was an audience favourite. Her rendition of “Paciencia ye Fe” brought the house down and her interactions with each of the cast members showed a true ownership of the stage.
Luisa Scrofani, as Nina, highlighted her ability to belt with passion and verocity in all her numbers and was clearly a force to be reckoned with, watch the theatre scene for this rising star. Her chemistry with Joe Kalou’s Benny was honest and complemented both actors’ voices in their duets. Kalou sometimes didn’t reach the heights that I feel most of the rest of the cast did but his personality and his choreography were an effective portrayal of the character.
The rest of the supporting cast all had their own moments to shine. Whether it was Ana Maria Belo’s “dictator” mothering as Camilla drawing laughs from the audience, or Monique Montez’s gossiping owner of the hair salon, Daniela, the score and libretto allowed each actor their moment to showcase their abilities and contribute to the overall story that In the Heights was telling. Alexander Palacio’s Kevin and Libby Asciak’s Carla perhaps weren’t as strong as the rest of the ensemble and I feel that Asciak’s mic may have let down her often hilarious lines, dropping them here and there.

The only thing I would say that may have taken me out of the show once or twice was the lighting cues, as there were moments when spots were not brought on when they should have, which is a surprising thing to see in a professional production, and at other times I felt the lighting design was rather dark in some places when it could have been better utilised.

Nonetheless, this production of In the Heights reminded me just how good of a show this actually is, since it’d been a long time listening to the soundtrack and last seeing a production in London’s King Cross Theatre. By showcasing a diverse, talented and eclectic cast, as well as a contemporary score, we are reminded what heights a modern musical can actually reach in the changing landscape of theatre. If this is the level of quality that is coming out of companies such as Blue Saints Productions at the Hayes Theatre Co, then I’m more than excited to see what comes next!

Stin’s Final Thought: I’m upset that Lin won’t be appearing as Usnavi in the film adaption of In the Heights (Anthony Ramos will be f.y.i) but I’d love to see him play the Piragua Guy!

In the Heights is now playing at the Sydney Opera House until 20th January. Tickets and information in the link below.

In the Heights – Sydney

In the Heights cast – Sydney Opera House 2019

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