Review – In the Heights, Northampton Filmhouse, 13th July 2021

In The Heights movie posterLin-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!

Washington HeightsLike 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?

Usnavi and VanessaYes, 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.

Benny and NinaBoth 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.

Big Dance NumberBut 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.

Daniela and the girlsIt’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.

Usnavi and SonnyAbuela 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.

Swimming PoolIt’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!

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