Review – In The Heights, Kings Cross Theatre, 29th December 2016

In The HeightsI’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to seeing In The Heights. It has a great reputation as the winner of three Olivier awards; it features one of my favourite stage actors, David Bedella; it’s choreographed by man-of-the-moment Drew McOnie; and it’s being staged at the Kings Cross Theatre round the back of the station, which would be a venue new to me. What’s not to look forward to? When I realised that it would be closing on 8th January, I knew that our Christmas break would be our last opportunity.

ith-sam-mackaySo let’s start off with some observations about the theatre itself. Tucked unpromisingly away at the end of some long tarpaulined corridors by the back entrance to Kings Cross station, we wondered a) whether we’d come to the right place and b) if either of us would get out alive. However, eventually the paths lead to a wide, open bar/reception area, which was full of excited people milling around, eating and drinking – and the overall atmosphere is terrific. There was a real sense of occasion, an almost dangerous vibe, that you rarely get in some of the more established and rarefied London theatres. You have a choice of platforms to watch the show from – I don’t think it makes a difference which as the show is performed in traverse, so either way you get excellent sight lines.

ith-freeflow-choreoIt does however mean that it takes longer than you expect to go from the bar to the auditorium, as all your fellow theatregoers make their way through just two small entrances (one to each platform). They didn’t start letting people in until about ten minutes before the show was due to start, and there was no way everyone would be in place in that short space of time. So if you’re the kind of person who finds announcements like “the show will begin in one minute” sweat-inducing when there are still dozens of people in front of you, just make sure you hover near the platform doors before they are opened. Inside, the acting space is long and narrow, but that’s nothing a talented choreographer can’t use to their advantage. I thought it was a great little venue – and they’ve even gone to the trouble to provide thoroughly decent wine for sale as well.

ith-bodegaThe show itself is set in Washington Heights, a Dominican-American neighbourhood in New York City, and depicts the love lives, the ambitions, the desperations and the exhilarations of living in that locale. You’ve got Usnavi, who runs the little bodega, working hard to make ends meet, entranced by the beautiful Vanessa but almost too enfeebled by life to see his way to trying to build a relationship. You’ve got Kevin, who runs the taxi company, taking out expensive loans so that he can finance his daughter Nina through college – even though she’s dropped out and her heart is no longer in it. You’ve got Daniela, who runs the hair salon, trying to steer the younger people in what she thinks is the right direction in their careers and in their love lives. You’ve got Nina and Benny, she the taxi “heiress”, he the radio controller,IN THE HEIGHTS forging a relationship despite her father’s disapproval. You’ve got Sonny, Usnavi’s smartass cousin, in danger of letting success pass him by, although he is not without ambition. And you’ve got Abuela Claudia, who wins the lottery. Over the course of two hours and twenty minutes their lives get stretched and subjected to all kinds of emotional battering, but in a relatively unusual turn of events, there’s a really feel-good and uplifting end to the show that leaves most of the characters in a better place than they were at the beginning. You could almost call it a happy ending.

IN THE HEIGHTSThe story is fast moving and rewarding, and the songs are emotional, uplifting and atmospheric. I loved Drew McOnie’s joyous choreography – I knew I would; it hits you from the first instant and shakes you up as inventive routine follows inventive routine. In response to the lively Latino sounds, he creates a brilliant blend of hip hop, salsa and rap, bringing a show that has its roots somewhere between West Side Story and Rent firmly into the 21st century. Mind you, he is blessed with a simply superb ensemble who live every inch of those dance moves. The production looks beautiful too, with atmospheric sets and costumes – and indeed, with Nina, Daniela, Vanessa and Camila all squeezed into figure-hugging salsa dresses, things often get a little hot under the collar. Gabriella Slade’s costume design for the show is a true work of art.

IN THE HEIGHTSOne of the muffled announcements that was made twice before the show, and which, on neither occasion, did I catch properly, listed all the cast-changes for that performance, rattled off at great speed because there were so many of them. I understood hardly any of it. So, apologies in advance if I get any of the performers’ names wrong. I did, however, catch that David Bedella would not be performing (sad) and that the role of Kevin would be played by Vas Constanti. Nothing against Mr Constanti, but the role of Kevin is quite mundane anyway, and I think would need someone of the charisma of Mr Bedella to make it stand out. The other major male role is that of Usnavi, played brilliantly by Sam Mackay; a central, Everyman character, and a force for good and kindness. Mr Mackay has a wonderful stage presence and is a great song and dance man.

IN THE HEIGHTSGabriela Garcia, who plays Nina, is one of those can’t take your eyes off her performers. She looks stunning; she runs the gamut of emotions with apparently effortless ease; and she has a beautiful singing voice. Sarah Naudi’s Vanessa is another great performance with a dynamic emotional click; and Aimie Atkinson’s Daniela is a lot of fun to watch, as she revels in the attention of being the boss and, let’s not deny it, looks super sexy in that dress. Among the supporting cast, I really liked Damian Buhagiar as Sonny, conveying all those recognisable signs of being an irrepressible little imp – and he’s also an amazing dancer. Juliet Gough is superb as Camila, clearly the power behind the throne at the taxi company, and, among the ensemble, Genesis Lynea has a brilliant stage presence and is a most stylish dancer.

IN THE HEIGHTSWhen the show ends, you feel a satisfying sense of exhilaration and real humanity. Congratulations to this most talented and energetic cast on bringing a little piece of Latino New York to Kings Cross. Possibly the greatest compliment I could give this is show is that you don’t feel like you’re in London, you really do feel transported to Washington Heights. Closing on the 8th January, but I can’t believe that will be the last we will see of this little gem.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Jersey Boys, Milton Keynes Theatre, 3rd February 2015

Jersey BoysWhen Jersey Boys first hit the West End about six years ago I was quite keen to see it as I have always enjoyed the music of the Four Seasons. Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t quite so keen, however, so we’ve never seen the show together in London. But as fate would have it, a couple of years ago when she was in New York on business there was an organised trip to see it, so she had no choice but to go. She reported back that she quite enjoyed it, but felt that the documentary/narration structure was a bit, well, tedious. So it was with good grace that she accepted the challenge of seeing it again when it toured to Milton Keynes, as I still wanted to see it. And then, in another unexpected twist, would you believe, she got called away back to New York on business again and so missed it. You couldn’t make it up. As the Crown Prince of Bedford has just discovered he’s partial to the music of Frankie Valli, there was no need for her seat to go empty.

Tim DriesenIn case you don’t know – although I’m sure you do – Jersey Boys is the tale of the rise and fall of The Four Seasons. Nothing to do with Vivaldi, a Channel Island tax haven or some guys whose mums have warned them it’s cold outside; this is the group from New Jersey (hereafter known as Noo Joisy), responsible for falsetto-based hits such as Walk Like a Man and Sherry (in the 60s) and more mainstream pop in the 70s like December 63 and Who Loves You. I clearly remember my father absolutely loving Walk Like a Man, and it’s one of the first songs I can recall from my childhood. Their 70s hits were an important part of my teenager years; you know how some songs always remind you of a particular occasion? I have a special fondness for Silver Star, which always takes me back to one, carefree, happy, summer’s day in 1975. I was sorry to see it doesn’t feature in the show.

Sam FerridayThe Four Seasons weren’t always named as such. They first started out as the Variety Trio, consisting of Tommy DeVito with his brother Nick and their friend Nick Massi. It wasn’t music that united them at that time as much as their fondness for going in and out of prison. The story takes us from those early years, where Tommy discovers and nurtures Frankie Castellucio (Valli) into becoming a singing sensation, through to their meeting Bob Gaudio, who becomes the fourth Season, and the man who writes the big hits. This is when the group is riding high. Things, inevitably, start to fade with the discovery of Tommy’s massive debts, and the personal falling-out between Tommy and Frankie over Tommy’s chatting up Frankie’s new girlfriend. Tommy leaves, Nick leaves; Bob gives in to the fact that he hates performing; so it is left to Frankie alone to become a front man for a new backing group. There are personal highs and lows throughout the show for all the group members, and each of them narrates a part of the story – Spring and Summer for the rise of the Seasons; Fall and Winter for the decline. It ends with each of the band members explaining what it was to be part of this amazing enterprise. I found it surprisingly moving.

Lewis GriffithsThis is a really enjoyable production of a lively and engaging show. It’s packed with enjoyable tunes, not only originally by the Four Seasons but also from other early 60s performers; and the regular troubles and conflicts within the ever-changing group line-up keep a dramatic intensity going that provides a backbone to the story. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book is full of wit and attitude; as well as the Seasons themselves there are many fascinating and well-fleshed out peripheral characters; and the performance of the music, by both the actors and the band, is stunning throughout. You know how some musicals can be really over-amplified and thus the sound is distorted or it jars your eardrums and makes them hurt? The volume for this production is perfect; sufficiently loud to be dynamic and exciting, whilst still being, if it isn’t too old-fashioned an observation, sensible.

Henry DavisTim Driesen is an astonishing Frankie Valli. His vocal impersonation of his original falsettos is spot-on; you wouldn’t know you weren’t listening to Mr Valli himself. There’s a great energy to his performance, but he also conveys the personal sadness that the character experiences with great pathos. Sam Ferriday presents Bob Gaudio as clean-cut, ambitious, and assertive; having much greater natural intelligence than his co-members; and his re-interpretation of the lyrics of Oh What A Night (December 63) means that song will never sound the same again.

Damian BuhagiarLewis Griffiths is a terrific Nick Massi – his intimidating presence lurking ominously in the background in the same way that his “doo-wops” lurk in the background of the Four Seasons songs. When his character finally comes to life and he gains his voice it adds a huge amount to the drama. In the performance I saw, Tommy DeVito was played by understudy Henry Davis and he was brilliant. A wisecracking, big-headed Noo Joisy louse, with his sense of his own importance becoming progressively more massively over-inflated as his actual influence on and contribution to the group declines; a really strong performance. Additionally the four guys together perform incredibly convincingly. Their outdated but impeccably smart dance moves that are carried out with apparently effortless ease conjure up an innocent sophistication that seems completely alien today – but it’s mesmerising on stage.

Matt GillettI really enjoyed Damian Buhagiar’s funny and punchy performance as the young Joe Pesci, introducing Bob Gaudio to the rest of the band and trying (unsuccessfully) to muscle in on their limelight; Matt Gillett gives lyricist Bob Crewe a very credible characterisation as a hard as nails producer tempered with a fluffy coating of camp; and Sean Kingsley is a strikingly effective gangster Gyp DeCarlo, blubbing at Valli’s sentimental rendition of My Mother’s Eyes, whilst looking as though he could tear you limb from limb any second. And hats off to musical supervisor Ron Melrose; the band is simply ace. I was perhaps a little surprised that the end of the show didn’t climax into a stand-up, no holding back, concert-style finale, like Sunny Afternoon; but no, it finishes with a simple rendition of Who Loves You, and that’s that. Not a concert; just like a proper musical, really.

Sean KingsleyJersey Boys attracts a wide range of theatregoers, from the very young to those who would have already have been about a bit during the group’s 60s heyday. It went down massively well in the theatre, with a very enthusiastic standing ovation. It would certainly help your enjoyment of this show if you’re already a Valli/Four Seasons fan, but even if not, the fascinating backstory of the group’s various stages and levels of success is definitely a tale worth telling. Mrs C told me I’d be singing Walk Like a Man for days afterwards. She wasn’t wrong.

P.S. It appears that not everyone felt that the volume was perfect. During the interval and at the end there were some people remonstrating with the theatre management that it wasn’t loud enough up in the Gods. Unfortunate for them, I guess; but any louder and it wouldn’t have been half so enjoyable in the stalls. Some you win, some you lose.