Before Lin-Manuel Miranda turned the world upside down with Hamilton, his hip-hop retelling of America’s founding fathers, he made his Broadway debut as a performer/composer/lyricist with In The Heights, a bubbly, slice-of-life musical that takes place in Washington Heights, New York City.
The show, which has a frequently funny and sweetly poignant book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, was conceived by Miranda as a homage to the neighbourhood he grew up in.
We’re watching it from a world away, in the Hayes Theatre at Potts Point, but there’s an undeniable, contagious spark of life in Blue Saint’s production, helmed by Luke Joslin and buoyed by a strong cast.
Usnavi (Ryan Gonzalez) is our narrator, protagonist, and lifeline, the owner of a bodega that’s the centre of the action on this rapidly-gentrifying block.
He runs the shop with his cousin Sonny (Marty Alix, a clear audience favourite) and pines after Vanessa (the sparkling Olivia Vasquez), who just wants to get out of the neighbourhood and move downtown.
Meanwhile Nina (a wistful Luisa Scrofani) has just returned home from college – “the one who made it out” – but her story is more complicated than that, and she’s not quite sure how to tell it.
Quick to welcome back Nina is smooth-talking, ambitious Benny, (Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji) who works with Nina’s parents (Ana Maria Belo and Alexander Palacio). And then there’s the big news: someone bought a winning lottery ticket from Usnavi’s bodega.
Which of these character’s lives will change forever?
Structurally, In The Heights owes a lot to Rent – the placement and function of its musical numbers hews closely to Jonathan Larson’s formula, and the emotional and the political co-exist similarly.
Here it’s gentrification of immigrant communities. In Rent it’s the AIDS crisis and art as a tool for social change.
But despite this clear debt to another artist, it’s a crucial milestone in the making of Miranda as a musical theatre legend in his own right, who here blends hip-hop with salsa and other Latin influences to create a contemporary spin on musical that lifts up black and Latin voices and places them at the centre of the narrative in an artform that usually prioritises whiteness.
This is a process that would become fully realised in Hamilton, with its credo to tell an American story with a cast that “looks like America looks now.”
Character comes first here, and it works: from the snappy interplay between salon workers Daniela (Monique Montez) and Carla (Libby Asciak), to the irrepressible Piragua Guy (Richard Valdez), through to the no-nonsense charm of Nina’s mother Camilla (Belo) and the much-needed gravity from Margi di Ferranti’s Abuela Claudia.
Scrofani and Omaji are charmingly matched as new lovers (Scrofani’s vocal chops are a highlight) and Montez belts with the best of them. Gonzalez carries the show on his shoulders as Usnavi and with fine acting and easy rhythm he looks perfectly at home as a leading man.
In this production it’s the movement that stands out: it’s not just the technique of Amy Campbell’s choreography, which is impressive, but the flow of the story is also driven by movement. She’s the production’s ultimate driving force.
The book scenes flag in comparison to the dance and the music – there’s a magic that overtakes this production when its cast sings and moves (Lucy Bermingham’s band is ebullient) – but that doesn’t mean they’re not enjoyable.
There’s astonishing economy in the show’s dance vocabulary; the stage space is what we would call ‘intimate’, but Simon Greer’s set makes room for the ensemble, Campbell makes the Hayes expansive with cannily designed group numbers – 96,000 and The Club/Blackout feel as though the space is endless, and the ambitious dances, packed with acrobatics and other tricks, are exciting to watch.
After a planned production of In The Heights in Brisbane was canned amid a white-washing casting controversy, it’s a relief that this production has used colour-conscious and appropriate casting in its roles – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it gives the spotlight to a slew of talented actors who, after seeing this show, you’ll hope to see more often.
It seems like a missed opportunity that the director is still a white man (tango and salsa expert Will Centurion is the resident director), because most Australian musical directors are white men. Changing the homogeneity of musical theatre seems to remain a stubbornly slow process.
But there’s hope in this sterling example of exciting contemporary musical theatre. The success of this show – and it is a great success, a rousing and joyous production – could, and must, pave the way for others.