Theatre review: In the Heights, Blue Saint Productions at the Hayes Theatre

My first impression of this current production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights playing to sell-out houses at the Hayes Theatre in Sydney was frustration that the music was so loud that I couldn’t hear the lyrics of the opening number very well. And then Luisa Scrofani’s Nina takes the stage to sing ‘Breathe’ and I was excited. What a number to introduce a character: it felt like a show-stopper and it was only the second song in, and her voice was a perfect combo of musical theatre and pop. I was getting Sara Bareilles, and hubby thought she was a bit Gloria Estefan. A beautiful, warm singing voice. And not much later the other female lead, Vanessa, as played by Olivia Vasquez also blew me away with her singing. Not to discount the boys, but wow, these women.

In the meantime, the music, energy and pace made me quickly forget any initial frustration or indeed, looking back, any issue I might have had with a pretty flimsy story: there’s drama here and there, none of it new, some of it very old (the two romantic couplings: their distance and then coming together), and most without a lot of heft. But story isn’t the point here, it’s the feeling.

I also found it interesting to be able to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first work, that lead to the multi-award winning phenomenon Hamilton. There’s the use of rap to tell the stories; there’s a very contemporary sound melded with some musical conventions; there is tons of energy. I thought I could hear some of Hamilton’s ‘Satisfied’ in InĂștil (Useless), and at the end when Usnavi talks about carrying his neighbourhood’s stories, I thought immediately of one of Hamilton’s main themes, ‘Who tells your story’. So that was fun.

I have NEVER seen such dancing at the Hayes Theatre, and I have seen some great choreography there, but the Blackout number has showstopping, acrobatic, amazingly choreographed and executed dancing.

And while I loved Luisa and Vanessa most, the whole cast was outstanding. Ryan Gonzalez, who tore up the stage as a Latino drag queen in the View Upstairs, is, like Lin-Manuel was in the Broadway production, a different leading man, with a different energy, undeniably the hero of the show, but perhaps an everyday hero instead of the usual brooding romantic lead. Timomatic had charisma and such a great voice. I have now learned that piragua is basically the same as the Hawaiian shave ice that I grew up knowing (from my mom’s side of the family) and the Piragua Guy was played by Richard Valdez, a Peruvian singer, whose voice is pure Latin American music, reminding me of the hit songs I heard when first getting to know Latino music. It felt like an injection of authenticity, in an authentic cast: I did read of how the Brisbane production was shut down before it even opened because of a lack of Latino actors.

Something I thought was a good encapsulation of why I loved this show so much was the performance of Alexander Palacio, playing Nina’s Dad, Kevin. He admits in the program to be challenged to perform in a musical, but as a long-experienced actor, it didn’t matter. While it was clear that his voice wasn’t as trained as others in the cast, he brought so much emotional truth and intensity to his role, he seemed perfectly cast.

So, yes. What a show. I was excited by it. I was excited leaving it. I would excitedly recommend seeing it, except that it’s sold out already, but I feel lucky to have seen this production.

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