In The Heights

February 12, 2014 | By | 1 Reply More

✭✭✭✭✩   Dynamic musical premiere

Church Hill Theatre: Tue 11 – Sat 15 February 2014
Review by Hugh Simpson

Energetic, high-tempo and thrilling, the Edinburgh University Footlights’ Scottish premiere of In The Heights is a real treat.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical tells of life in the New York neighbourhood of Washington Heights, a largely Spanish-speaking area or barrio.

Edinburgh University Footlights Nitai Levi (Benny) & Kirsty Findlay (Nina). Photo © Daniel Harris

Nitai Levi (Benny) & Kirsty Findlay (Nina). Photo © Daniel Harris

The action revolves around the store owned by Usnavi, and features the lives and loves of various characters along with the impact of modern America on their traditions.

Despite winning Tony awards on Broadway, the show has not yet been seen in the UK, so this production by the Footlights is a considerable coup.

Suggestions that this is a hip-hop and salsa based musical perhaps oversell its novelty. There are certainly diverse influences at play in the athletic and accomplished dancing. However, aside from the frequent use of rap, the tunes are fairly traditional Broadway fare, with Latin tinges overlaying rather than driving the music. The songs, which are consistently melodic and involving, provide all of the interest; the storyline is somewhat predictable and stereotyped.

The fact that the musical numbers are shared out between the huge number of principals helps to showcase a large and talented cast like this one, but further limits the possibility of character development. As a result, this is more like the modern trend of ‘jukebox’ musicals where a flimsy storyline links the songs, rather than a traditional musical where the songs arise out of the characterisation.

Swept along by the energy and skill…

None of this really matters while the show is on and the audience is swept along by the energy and skill. The dancing, for example, is powerful and full of physicality. The huge ensemble are skilfully deployed by director and choreographer Jimi Mitchell, even if at times the stage seems a little crowded; in smaller groups there is more room for the likes of Jay Jones to impress with his acrobatics and lithe sensuousness.

Aisling Brady (Abuela) & ensemble. Photo © Daniel Harris

Aisling Brady (Abuela) & ensemble. Photo © Daniel Harris

Technically, this production is of an extremely high standard. The lighting and sound are impressive, while Andrew McDivitt’s set is clever and helps to add atmosphere. The cast respond excellently to the challenge of portraying Hispanic Americans of hugely varying ages; it is notable that the accents rarely falter.

It is the singing that is the real focus of the performance. Backed by a large and tuneful band, the standard of singing is extremely high. There is some real talent on display, particularly Kirsty Findlay, who invests the role of Nina, a troubled high-achieving student struggling to adjust to life outside the barrio, with real depth and emotion. Aisling Brady, as Usnavi’s surrogate grandmother Abuela, and Claire Saunders, who plays Nina’s mother Camila, both manage to convince in older roles and display power, control and tunefulness.

Sarah Couper, as sassy, gossipy hairdresser Daniela, has real stage presence and just the right level of broad comedy – in which she is well aided by Elayne Gray as her assistant Claudia. Becki Clark, as Usnavi’s love interest Vanessa, struggled a little with nerves at first, leading to problems with breathing and phrasing, but visibly grew into the role to display an affecting voice and assured dancing.

There is a genuine star quality in everything he does…

The male singers, while still impressive, were perhaps not as accomplished, but Alex Poole (Kevin) convinces as a dignified, domineering but sympathetic father to Nina. Ronan Radin, meanwhile, provided the closest thing to a showstopper as the seller of piragua (a kind of Latino Slush Puppie). Nitai Levi, who plays Nina’s admirer Benny, is likeable and tuneful, but the chemistry between him and Nina is not entirely convincing.

Benjamin Aluwihare (Usnavi). Photo © Daniel Harris

Benjamin Aluwihare (Usnavi). Photo © Daniel Harris

Jordan Roberts-Laverty, as Usnavi’s young cousin and employee Sonny, and Sonny Grieveson (graffiti artist Pete) are both thrilling movers, but are not always entirely plausible as streetwise young men from the ‘hood – which exemplifies the only thing about this show which stops it from being a five-star performance.

Despite the commendable ambition and the array of talent, there is still something lacking at times in the authenticity of the performances – a slight tinge of Scottish reserve here, a lack of abandon, chutzpah and brio in the salsa moves there – which fails to transport us to Washington Heights. For the most part, we are willing to accept that the noticeably pasty-faced and blonde or red-haired members of the cast are Hispanic New Yorkers, but not always.

There are no such problems with suspension of disbelief regarding the central figure of Usnavi, brilliantly played by Benjamin Aluwihare. Whether it is his high-speed rapping, apparently effortless comedy or infectious loose-limbed movement, there is a genuine star quality in everything he does. He is never less than absolutely compelling – which also goes for almost everything else about the show.

Running time 2 hrs 30 mins including interval
Run ends Saturday 15 February 2014
Evenings 7.30 pm, Matinee Sat 2.30 pm
Church Hill Theatre, 33a Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
Details from: www.intheheights.co.uk
Tickets from: www.intheheights.co.uk

To Purchase the Original Broadway Cast recording & songbook on Amazon click on their images above.

ENDS

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