Poet, satirist, wit, critic, essayist and notable exponent of wisecracks.
But the One on the Right, originally published in The New Yorker magazine, 19th October 1929
Available to read online here (search for page 86 of the document)
Given the style classification Interior Monologue by Moffett and McElheny: “In these first two stories somebody is speaking to himself, thinking. We merely overhear his thoughts. These stories are the equivalent of soliloquies in a theatre, except that a character thinking alone on stage would have to talk aloud so that the audience could hear his thoughts. Reading these stories is like listening to a soliloquy.” More on what makes an interior monologue when we come to the other short story listed under this category!
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
But the One on the Right
So short, it’s barely a story, more like a fictional article! Dorothy Parker is invited to dinner by a hostess; she clearly knows no one there and is seated next to a boring man on her left. He’s polite, answers her small talk directly, but with no sense of creativity or interest; and her brain gives a running commentary on the occasion. She’s stuck with the one on the left, but the one on the right is being engaged by another lady who bagsied him first, and, despite his attractive shoulders, Dorothy decides to play fair and not try to muscle in on the conversation. At the end, the man on the right reveals that he too finds the whole experience exasperating and surprises Dorothy with an inventive chat-up line.
If ever you’ve been invited to dinner with the intention of getting people who don’t know each other to get to know one another, you know how ghastly the experience can be. And Dorothy Parker nicely conveys that cliff edge of politeness and boredom, of doing what the host expects of you rather than doing what you really want to do. We can all appreciate the disaster that a dull dining partner can provide. It’s a fun twist at the end, when the man on the right is found to be having an equally awful time, and the two of them plan a getaway which might lead on to something more interesting.
Messrs Moffett and McElheny must have decided they wanted an extremely light hors d’oeuvre to start this anthology, and Dorothy Parker is always a reliably witty entertainer with her yarns and bon mots. “I should have stayed at home for dinner. I could have had something on a tray. The head of John the Baptist or something.” I love the phrase vin triste, (not sure if it was an invention of Parker’s but I’d never heard it before) which superbly describes what happens when you have too much of the former and it inevitably descends into the latter. Times change if Chablis was considered a rotten wine, as it is in this story; it’s rather classy nowadays. And I also enjoyed her few literary moments; saying that red wine gave her The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane) or referring to the boring man on the left as “Boy Thoreau” – in an ironic nod to Henry Thoreau’s dense and packed narrative style.
Much as Dorothy Parker might have enjoyed (or endured) a wafer thin starter to her meal, so can we regard this four-page amuse bouche as a precursor to some more meaty fayre to come. The next short story in the book, and the other to be classified as an interior monologue, is This is my Living Room by Tom McAfee. I think this will be a very different kettle of fish.
No, nothing to do with an old BBC programme where you praised their efforts to the sky (Well done the BBC, another winner!) but a book of short stories that’s been hanging around my bookshelves for over forty years. Let me explain…
Back in 1979 I saw the musical of Flowers for Algernon, and it really impressed me – even though it didn’t last long, it still remains one of the top ten shows I’ve ever seen. It was based on Daniel Keyes’ short story of the same name, and I decided I had to track it down and read it. In those pre-Internet days it was harder to find a short story in an anthology without having a clue as to who might have published it. But, as luck would have it, I found it an American book called Points of View, edited by James Moffett and Kenneth R McElheny. Moffett (1929–1996) was an American teacher of English, author, and theorist of the teaching and learning of language arts and especially writing – so says Wikipedia, anyway. McElheny – who doesn’t get a Wikipedia entry of his own, alas – taught Creative Writing at the Arlington School, Belmont, Mass. at the time of publication, and had also taught at the Phillips Exeter Academy, as did Mr Moffett, which is presumably where their collaboration began. But I’m guessing here.
Anyway, I bought the book, read the story, put the book on the bookshelf and never looked at it again – until recently. It turns out that this anthology has quite a good reputation for being a) an assortment of excellent short stories and b) for being arranged in an unusual manner. They are listed by their narrative styles. So, for example, the first two stories are listed as Interior Monologue; then there are two under Dramatic Monologue, three under Letter Narration, two under Diary Narration, etc, etc and etc. There are actually forty-one short stories in this book, listed under eleven different narrative styles.
It was published in 1966, but a second edition appeared in 1995 with a revised selection of stories. Thirteen of the original 1966 selection made it into the revised edition, alongside thirty-one new choices. I only have the first edition, so my Points of View Challenge is to read – and write about – each of the forty-one stories lurking within its pages. And, if it goes well, who knows, I might buy the second edition too. Both books are very easily available on the Internet through the usual second hand sources, if you’d like to get a copy and read them along with me. I should add though, that all the writers are very well known and, with a couple of exceptions, you could easily find each of these stories in other collections. Even more convenient, most of these stories are available to read on the Internet, and I’ll provide an online link to the text in each blogpost wherever I can. That means we can all read them together!
The first story in the book – under the heading of Interior Monologue – is Dorothy Parker’s But the One on the Right. I’m going to give that a read and then write up my thoughts – probably tomorrow. Hope you find this an interesting challenge too!
One of those calamitous occasions when you arrive at the theatre in good time for a Friday night performance and they’ve already run out of programmes for the entire week’s run – sigh. It makes it very hard to remember the finer details. But the photocopied cast list does remind me that this production performed Shaw’s original concise text, first published in 1916, excluding the extra scene he wrote for a film made in 1938. The late Tim Pigott-Smith was an excellent Henry Higgins, with Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery as Eliza, Tony Haygarth as Doolittle, grandes dames Barbara Jefford as Mrs Higgins and Una Stubbs as Mrs Pearce, and the excellent and up-and-coming Edward Bennett as Freddy. Directed by Peter Hall.
Forgotten Voices – Oxford Playhouse, 7th September 2007
Based on the oral testimonies of First World War veterans and collected by the Sound Archive of the Imperial War Museum, this play by Malcolm McKay tells the story of five survivors – four men and one woman – whose memories provide a vivid and moving first and account of the Great War. An excellent endeavour, to capture these memories in a play so that they need never be forgotten. The superb cast included Rupert Frazer, Belinda Lang and Matthew Kelly.
BBC Proms in the Park – Hyde Park, London, 8th September 2007
Another of those blissful assemblies in Hyde Park, and an excuse for picnics and champagne, whilst being entertained by the likes of Lesley Garrett, Dick and Dom, Chico, T-Rextasy (who are ace), opera star Juan Diego Florez and top of the bill, Will Young. All presented by Sir Terry Wogan. A great fun night.
Donkeys’ Years – Milton Keynes Theatre, 28th September 2007
It’s always fun to see another production of Michael Frayn’s delightful Donkeys Years, a show that relies on the camaraderie of its actors playing the parts of old ex-students returning for their college Gaudy. But this production didn’t work that well because I thought it wasn’t very well cast – even though individually it was full of excellent actors. Ian Lavender came across as too young to play Birkett, the old porter, as did Mark Hadfield as Headingley. Snell is meant to be a wretched no-hoper but Norman Pace gave him too much smartness; and Sara Crowe just felt wrong as Lady Driver! Never mind!
Visiting Mr Green – Oxford Playhouse, 5th October 2007
One of those nights at the theatre when you know you’re in the presence of a masterclass of perfection acting. Warren Mitchell was absolutely stupendous as the old man in Jeff Baron’s brilliant play about the developing relationship between the young executive who nearly kills Mr Green in a car accident and then has to spend six months visiting him as a form of restorative justice. Every bit as good as you would imagine it was.
Rambert Dance Company World View Tour – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 13th October 2007
Rambert’s tour for 2007 was called their World View Tour, because it featured the works of Australian, French Canadian, and American choreographers. The programme for the night started with L’eveil by company member Melanie Teall, then Gran Partita by Karole Armitage, a revival premiere of Christopher Bruce’s wonderful Swansong, and then finally Andrée Howard’s Lady into Fox, originally premiered in 1939. Wonderful as always.
Half a Sixpence, Birmingham Hippodrome, 20th October 2007
Not the amazing Cameron Mackintosh production that wowed everyone about five years ago, but a Bill Kenwright production starring Gary Wilmot as Arthur Kipps, and full of joy and delight he was too – Kipps is the role for a true song-and-dance man to shine as Tommy Steele did originally, Gary Wilmot did in this production and Charlie Stemp would in due course. Elsewhere in the cast was the wonderful Gaye Brown as Mrs Walsingham. Always a fun and entertaining show, although the recent production has rather eclipsed the memory of this one.
The Producers – Milton Keynes Theatre, 1st November 2007
I was expecting this big show to be an illustrious success but it rather left me cold, I’m afraid. I’m not a huge fan of Joe Pasquale, but he was excellent in the part of Leo; in fact, the best performance was from Russ Abbot as the flamboyant Roger DeBris. My main memory is spotting Joe Pasquale at the deli counter in the next-door Waitrose.
Richard Alston Dance Company – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 27th November 2007
Never one to miss the annual visit of the Richard Alston Dance Company, this year’s show featured four excellent pieces: Fingerprint, Nigredo, Brink and Gypsy Mixture. The super company included Martin Lawrance, Pierre Tappon, Anneli Binder, a young Hannah Kidd and the great Jonathan Goddard.
Aladdin – Birmingham Hippodrome, 23rd December 2007
Moving on past another trip to see the amazing Chichester production of Nicholas Nickleby in two parts, all on one day at the Milton Keynes Theatre, our next show was the panto for Christmas 2007, Aladdin, starring John Barrowman in the title role. Fun for all the family, of course, but I thought this Qdos panto lacked a little pizzazz. I wasn’t overkeen on the Grumbleweeds as the policemen (although our nieces loved them); I was looking forward to seeing Don Maclean as Widow Twankey and he certainly put on a good show. I actually think most laughs came from the wonderful facial expressions of Masashi Fujimoto as the Emperor. Good, but not great.
I remember the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always used to refer to gin as Mother’s Ruin, and, watching April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers’ new musical about that particular demon drink, it’s no surprise that she did! Apparently, there was a time in the 18th century when the average Briton drank 1.5 litres of the stuff a day, not that any of them would have had a clue what a litre was. Then again, I don’t think they took measures into account; a dram of mothers’? Just swig it, knock it back, get it down you. It was, after all, just an easy exit into oblivion away from the hardships of the world.
Meet the ladies of Gin Lane, and listen to their tales, not only of drunkenness, but of rape, prostitution, murder, robbery, degradation, imprisonment and so on. No wonder they turned to a spot of Gineva to make it go away. There’s Suki – everyone knows Suki, always happy to help you out if you’ve got a baby you can’t afford to keep; she’ll make sure it’s safely looked after. There’s Moll, with her ready wit and personal charms who’ll always let you have your way with her if it keeps her in gin for an hour or so. There’s Lydia, selling top quality gin from her barrow, with her friend Mary; they’ve both got secrets – and you know how secrets have a way of finding you out. And there’s Evelyn, selling her lousy gin and losing her custom to Lydia and Mary; but revenge is a gin best served icy cold.
We also encounter novelist Henry Fielding, who went on to become a magistrate and co-found The Bow Street Runners with his brother John, and we meet his sister Sarah, also a writer and early feminist, encouraging (but not too much) well-meaning but impoverished young women to improve their lot. But how do these historically real people fit into the fictional (?) world of Gin Craze!? You’ll have to see the show to find out.
This magnificent show has success written through it like a stick of rock. Hayley Grindle’s set – a labyrinth of stairs and scaffolding – suggests the dingy streets and sordid alleyways of a Hogarthian London, and the costumes are fantastic – billowing gowns that you can imagine were once grand, but years of grime have worn down; wealth and poverty brought together in sharp focus. April de Angelis’ book and characters are full of wit, depth, and emotion, and there’s a fascinating and strong moral compass at play. Lucy Rivers’ music is melodic, reflective, and engrossing, whilst also capturing a spirit of raucous entertainment. I could list the songs that I enjoyed the most, but I found I was listing almost all of them, so there’s no point doing that! As a mark of a decent musical, each song either extends our understanding of the character singing or progresses the plot so that you never leave a song in the same place that you entered it.
As for the performers, it was one of those rare occasions where every single member of the cast delivered a performance that was 100% faultless, in word, in action, in voice, in musicianship. They form a most extraordinary talented ensemble. This is one of those on-trend productions where each of the cast members also plays an instrument, and the music and book integrate seamlessly. At the heart of the show is the partnership between Mary and Lydia, conveyed perfectly by Aruhan Galieva as Mary and Paksie Vernon as Lydia. Their harmonies when they sing together are just sublime. Ms Galieva has a deceptively simple way of making our heart melt when her character is in trouble (which is a lot of the time) but also rejoice along with her when things are going well. Using the awkward J word here, Ms Vernon delivers a strong and convincing performance of a character who goes on an extraordinary journey throughout life, adapting to her circumstances, surviving against all the odds, until making a final devastating sacrifice. It’s a fantastic performance.
Debbie Chazen is also superb as Moll, who may be addled with alcohol but still has a remarkable eloquence and gives the show huge boosts of humour every time she appears. She is also hilarious as the ghastly Germanic Queen Caroline, wrapping her vocal cords around such delightful phrases as “when things go Titten hoch” with tremendous gusto. Rachel Winters is great as the super-posh Sarah Fielding, slumming it in prison to do research for her latest book, drilling Mary in the ways a woman might succeed, extending her charity just so far – but no further. Rosalind Ford plays with the audience’s emotions in the difficult role of Suki, conveying the fine balance between anger at her deceit and sympathy for her plight. And Paula James is very entertaining as the furious Evelyn, who then becomes a victim of her own heart; her reaction to why her love cannot be requited gets the biggest laugh of the night.
And I haven’t mentioned the gents! Alex Mugnaioni is brilliant as the urbane Henry Fielding, delivering witty (but inappropriate) after dinner jokes about Plato, failing to conceal his automatic stiffy when in a clench with the maid, although later becoming an ultimately callous magistrate. I also liked him very much as Jekyll the courtier and the Constable, torn between not agreeing with the new laws but having to enforce them. And Peter Pearson is also excellent as the hypocritical reverend Thomas Wilson and the blind John Fielding, identifying drolly through sound alone which items of crockery are being smashed around him.
This show just blew us both away with its brilliant mix of comedy and sadness, the quality of the story-telling, the beauty of the music, the wit of the language, the excellence of the performances and the sheer joie de vivre of the whole gin-soaked thing! It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 31st July but it would be a crime against theatre if this didn’t go on to have a long and successful life hereafter. Also – a cast recording please!
P. S. By the way, this is a very bawdy show; no nudity or anything like that, but the language could, in Henry Higgins’ words, make a sailor blush. Definitely not one for the kids, and possibly not one for Granny either, depending on her sensibilities – but always remember, never underestimate Granny; she’s seen more years than you have.
It’s not often that one feels bound to include the word joyous so early in a theatre review, but these are exceptional times, and no other word expresses the true delight everyone felt at being back at the Royal Shakespeare Company in their wonderful new garden theatre. It’s always a treat to enjoy this most accessible and light-hearted of Shakespeare’s plays, although, amongst the fun, director Phillip Breen has emphasised all its darker and more uncomfortable elements. The result is a cross between a traditional, riotous fun-and-frolic-type approach and an unusually close inspection of the discomfort and detachment experienced by its characters.
The RSC is to blame for my love of Comedy of Errors, having sat in the front row of the Aldwych Theatre in December 1977 agog at the magnificent production by Trevor Nunn, which remains the best production of a Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen (and – joy of joys – was recorded for posterity). The play adapts superbly to a summer outdoors setting – and the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Theatre provides both extremely comfy seating and an extraordinarily clear view of the stage. You can be sure, by the way, that the RSC has adopted a strong Covid-secure protocol not only to look after its audience but also its cast and crew, with a longer than usual interval (vital to get visits to both the bar and the toilets done in ample time) and excellent attention to social distancing and hygiene requirements. The super-helpful and plentiful front of house staff did a tremendous job.
You don’t need me to outline the story of the Comedy of Errors (but I will anyway). The states of Syracuse and Ephesus are on a war footing and Syracusan merchant Egeon is under arrest on penalty of death unless he can raise the thousand marks the law requires to save his life. Egeon has nothing to offer save his eloquence, but has no knowledge that one of his sons, and his son’s servant – and, indeed, his wife – have been living in Ephesus after they went missing in a sea disaster. Meanwhile his other son, (and other servant) turn up in Ephesus, looking for their brothers, and get mixed up in a comedy of mistaken identity – because they’re all identical twins. Plautus recognised a good joke when he saw one, didn’t he? I’m not breaking any spoilers when I tell you that Egeon doesn’t die.
Max Jones has created a simple but extremely effective set, with a tiled floor that recreates both cobbled streets and wealthy flooring, plus a back wall that parts in the middle to suggest the all-important abbey where the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio take refuge. Dyfan Jones’ sound design is superb; in particular, the comic scene between A of S and D of S, about the countries embedded in the realms of Luce’s body, works incredibly well with the sound tricks played by the imaginary microphones. One reservation though; at times, the sound of the four beatboxing vocalists became slightly overpowering. More of them later.
It’s the off-beat moments where the production strays from the typical reading of the play that gives you pause for thought. Sound and visual effects emphasise the cruelty of the beatings that Dromio receives from Antipholus of S; we see it as an abusive relationship, like a dog who keeps coming back to its master out of natural devotion but knows it’s only minutes till he will flinch again. And when Antipholus of E is locked out of his own home, the cacophony of howling ridicule that comes from the crowd is enhanced as a mental paranoia that profoundly disturbs and menaces his brain. No pantomime this. The ending, too, is strangely cold; whereas normally you might expect the two Antipholuses to clap each other on the back in an ecstatic reunion, here they’re barely able to look each other in the eye – and the text backs this reading up. The two Dromios consent to leave hand in hand, so a more physical reunion is appropriate; but their long, silent hug becomes uncomfortable as you realise that this is all too much for one of them.
The plays has a hard core of four central characters – the Antipholuses and the Dromios – two additional essential characters – Adrianna and Luciana – and a wealth of lively side characters, who, for me, really made the night. Antony Bunsee’s Egeon is the pinnacle of enfeebled dignity, holding everyone’s attention with his powerful tale of woe, who causes Nicholas Prasad’s excellent Duke Solinus to show unusual compassion. The two characters make a stark visual comparison, with Egeon’s faded glory juxtaposed with Solinus’ smart claret and blue uniform – obviously a member of the West Ham United Light Infantry. Bringing Egeon’s story to a happy conclusion is a fantastic performance by Zoe Lambert as Aemilia, setting the bar for Aemilias of the future, with her hard-hitting no-nonsense Yorkshire bluff providing an excellent comic presence but a perfectly accurate reading of the character.
There’s an extremely funny and vivacious performance by Baker Mukasa as the perplexed goldsmith Angelo, trying to balance his debtor and creditor with beaming but unsuccessful interpersonal skills until the money just isn’t there; I loved Alfred Clay’s Doctor Pinch, portrayed as a yogic charlatan in posing gold lamé; and Toyin Alyedun-Alase’s wonderful Courtesan creates a very striking figure as an almost-dominatrix, alluring and threatening at the same time – you wouldn’t want to cross her. William Grint breathes new life into the character of the gangster second merchant with some fantastic physical comedy, and together with his bodyguard Dyfrig Morris, show how disability can be a positive force on stage. Riad Richie, Patrick Osborne and, audience’s favourite, Sarah Seggari, all bring terrific comic support to their variety of roles.
Guy Lewis captures all Antipholus of Syracuse’s fish out of water status, but very nicely combined with that slight arrogance that accompanies the seasoned tourist traveller. Wonderful use of pauses highlight his polite confusion, and there’s a brilliant bit of comic business with a hand sanitiser that unites the problems of today with an age-old issue to genuine guffaws. Rowan Polonski channels his inner Rik Mayall with a frenetic Antipholus of Ephesus, wrapped up in his public image and desperate not to get a bad camera angle. He provides another strong physical comedy performance which gets him into all sorts of torturous bodily positions.
Jonathan Broadbent’s Dromio of S comes across as one of those servants who pretty much think they’re as important as their master with a degree of detachment and seriousness that helps him escape most of the on-stage madness; perhaps unlike Greg Haiste’s Dromio of E, who throws himself more into the traditional mayhem and comic physicality. When the back wall opens up to allow the brothers all meeting, Mr Broadbent is sat on the back wall, way backstage, deliberately visible and disconcerted, wondering whether he should get up and join the rest of them. That final scene of the long uncomfortable hug cleverly shows the difference between the two personalities. Hedydd Dylan’s Adrianna successfully conveys the character’s frustrations and anger at her husband’s inexplicable behaviour, but I didn’t think she always revealed the warmth or humour that lays beneath the exasperated surface. Avita Jay, though, is excellent as the spirited yet strictly non-feminist Luciana, who avers that a man is master of his liberty and is shocked at what appears to be her brother-in-law’s inappropriate behaviour.
One major bugbear with this production though: the music. It’s a personal thing, and I absolutely accept how skilful it is, and that I may well be out of kilter with everyone else; but I really dislike constant bombardment with vocal shenanigans beatbox-style. And the trouble is that these musical interludes not only separate each scene, but that they also drown out some important text (poor Egeon’s big speech at the beginning is basically ruined by their disrespectful soundtrack) and all to no end. Not only does the music add nothing to our understanding of the story, but it also actively gets in the way of it. Oh – and I didn’t understand all the shopping bags everywhere either.
I admired this production for its boldness in exploring the darker side of the play, and for revealing some essential differences of character between the two sets of brothers. And it’s also studded with some brilliant supporting performances. Not perfect, but certainly entertaining, and a wonderful return to live theatre from this amazing company.
Those lovely comedy lovers at the Comedy Crate had already resumed residence in the back garden of the Black Prince a few weeks ago, but this was the first show that we’d been able to catch – and my first non-Zoom comedy gig since their show last October. Such are the ways of the pandemic. The line-up had unavoidably changed a bit between being first announced and the show on the night, but that’s often the way with live gigs!
Our MC for the night was Jenny Collier, whom we last saw on one of the Comedy Crate’s online gigs earlier this year. She’s a sparky presence, with her charming appearance and cut-glass accent acting as a great juxtaposition to some ribald language. She’s been working as a GP receptionist for some of these Covid times, which was a source of some excellent material. However, I most enjoyed her account of giving a – I can’t dress this up in any other way – stool sample for the medics to explore. We were an occasionally unruly crowd, so she had a lot on her plate for the evening, but she was great fun and kept the show going at a great pace.
Our first act, and one of my all-time favourite comedians, was Olaf Falafel, whom we’ve seen many times in Edinburgh. In his trademark stripy blue sailor’s shirt, which makes him look like an extra from There is Nothing Like a Dame, he attacked us with some brilliant material, playing off the crowd beautifully, and ending up with his famous biscuitology routine. His comedy is a wonderful mixture of the absurd and the childish, but with lots of devastatingly clever observations and woefully funny puns. Great to see him again.
Next up, and new to us, was Toussaint Douglass; a naturally funny guy with a very relaxed style but with some strong punchy material full of surprises, including some challenging stuff about race. A very likeable personality, with some nice self-deprecating observations, he struck up an excellent rapport with the audience. Very enjoyable, and someone to look forward to seeing again!
For our headline act we had the rather wacky and unpredictable Tony Law, whom we’ve seen a few times before and sometimes he goes down a storm, and sometimes he doesn’t! I very much liked his use of accents in his act, and he’s supremely confident with dealing with the crowd; you either “get” his flights of fancy or you don’t and, personally, on the whole, I don’t! But the majority of the audience did, so I admit it’s my problem not his!
There’s another Comedy Crate in the garden of the Black Prince on Thursday 19th August. We’re going, are you?
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first big musical hit the stage running on Broadway back in 2008, and there was an instant interest in making it into a film. But, as often happens, those plans stalled, and it wasn’t until after the smash success of Hamilton that work on In the Heights The Movie got going again. I thoroughly enjoyed the stage version (although I didn’t see it until 2016) and so was naturally keen to see the film – and, for the most part, it doesn’t disappoint at all!
Like the show, the film offers a snapshot of a few days in Washington Heights, a Dominican-American area of New York (or Nuevo York, to make it clearer), and sets Usnavi at the centre of the community, running his little bodega at all hours of the day, accompanied by his smartass cousin Sonny. Stanford University undergraduate Nina arrives unexpectedly, much to the delight and concern of her father Kevin, who runs the local taxi company, and even more to the delight of Benny, the taxi controller, whose tongue hangs out (figuratively) every time Nina appears on the scene. But why has she returned? Meanwhile, Vanessa, who works at the beauty salon, dreams of getting her own place, and Usnavi dreams of having a relationship with her but she’s just too beautiful for him to dare make the first move. Will they get it together? And who is the lucky winner of $96,000 in the lottery?
Yes, there are a few plot and sequence changes from the original show; always a risky undertaking if you’re showing the film to a purist. I did like how Usnavi’s future relationship with Vanessa was left to your imagination in the stage show, whereas that’s not the case in the film; and there are a couple of times where the film’s approach to the tough reality of life is a little blander – Usnavi’s shop doesn’t get ransacked during the blackout, for example. Either way though, it’s a good story, well told.
Both the show and the film suffer from the same overload of exposition in its first half-hour or so. There’s a lot of information that is hurled at the audience right from the start, that it’s impossible to keep up with everything you’re being told – particularly when so much of it is coming via the medium of hip-hop/rap/Latin lyrics. There are big dance numbers which overwhelm the senses, and whilst they look and sound great, they can have the effect of getting in the way of the storytelling. In fact, it’s only when the music stops that you can really give yourself a chance to reflect and take stock of what’s been happening. As a result, quieter scenes such as the confrontation between Kevin and Nina concerning her Stanford career, and Usnavi’s important discussions with his accountant, stand out for their clarity. It also tends to dip into sentimentality a little more than I’d like – there’s only so many times you can watch Usnavi get misty-eyed over the four youngsters to whom he’s telling his story.
But there’s no doubt that the dance numbers form most of the stand-out moments of the film. I particularly liked The Club scene, which felt just a hair’s breadth from West Side Story, and the Carnaval del Barrio, which genuinely shows how dance can emerge as an organic reaction to the steamy Latin conditions of life. A personal thing, but I was irritated by the occasional moments when the dance scenes moved into the surreal – such as Benny and Nina dancing on the walls of the block, or the guys on the street plucking seemingy tangible shapes out of mid-air. Those gimmicks didn’t enhance the songs or the dance. Musicals are already one step away from reality; in my humble opinion, they don’t need to be made even more impossible to believe! However, we couldn’t help but laugh at the use of Hamilton’s You’ll Be Back as holding music on the phone; they must have had a lot of fun at that idea.
It’s studded with excellent performances by a young company of largely impossibly beautiful people. It goes without saying that all the performers are supreme singers and dancers, bringing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs and Christopher Scott’s empowering choreography to ebullient life. Leslie Grace is stunning (in all ways) as Nina, looking fondly on her old neighbourhood friends but with the slight distancing of someone who has been subjected to more intellectual challenges. Melissa Barrera is also fantastic as Vanessa, trying for a better life, opening the door for Usnavi to approach her. Daphne Rubin-Vega is brilliant as salon owner Daniela, challenging the neighbourhood to get a life, and young Gregory Diaz IV turns in a quirky and lovable performance as Sonny – he’s obviously going places.
Abuela Claudia is played by Olga Merediz who took the part on Broadway, so it seems only right that she should have the role here, but I couldn’t help but think she seemed a little young to be playing a character who dwindles away with old age before our eyes. But it’s Anthony Ramos who takes control of this film as Usnavi, perfectly conveying the character’s Everyman-type role; eminently likeable, full of empathy, with a wry sense of humour (is it just me who thinks he looks like a Puerto Rican Jon Richardson?), perfectly playing to the camera in his role as narrator. A first-rate performance.
It’s not a perfect film – at two hours, twenty minutes it felt a little long, and occasionally self-indulgent with the sentimentality; and sometimes the immense pizzazz of the whole thing obstructs the clarity of the storytelling. One of my pet hates in a musical is when its songs neither further our understanding of the characters nor push the story forward, and In the Heights is occasionally guilty of this. However, I think I’ve been more critical about this film than it truly warrants. It’s extremely enjoyable, there are huge dollops of feelgood factor, and it has that wonderful, sometimes elusive element, a happy ending!