Review: In the Heights - King's Cross Theatre - with choreography by Drew McOnie

Reviewed by Claire Cohen - Monday 19 October 2015

'In the Heights' Photo: Johan Persson

Performance reviewed: 15 October

At first glance you might think Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-Award winning musical is a fusion of all-time favourites West Side Story, Dirty Dancing and Legally Blonde. Set in a New York ghetto, In the Heights depicts the daily struggles of its Latin-American inhabitants as they cope with poverty, petty crime, debt, shattered dreams, social change and the challenges of an endless climb towards equality. Not to mention the discomfort of a power cut in the middle of a searing heatwave.

But there is no schmaltz: this show involves characters who come across as honest, raw and real. They immediately engage the audience with their strengths and weaknesses, hopes, aspirations and fears which transcend the somewhat anodyne plotline. It is fairly easy to guess what will happen next. But you don’t anticipate the powerful celebration of community which, by the end, leaves you with a profound sense of satisfaction.

And therein lies the key to this triumph of a production: in depicting this community the performers themselves have become a part of it. Rarely have I seen a cast throw themselves so wholeheartedly into dance after dance, number after number. In portraying the characters with their daily problems, they really bond and seem to care about each other. The result is an explosive feast of sinuous, sensuous, interlinked movement. Every song morphs into the next riotous celebration of a few days in the lives of a handful of people who are materially poor but spiritually rich and whose stories can resonate.

We had to wait for the magic, though, and perhaps a little too long. A slow build-up is important but not to the point when you are starting to lose concentration wondering what all the fuss is about. Uh, why has this been given four star reviews?

To me, in the first six numbers the dancers seemed a little self-conscious and disengaged. Then one of the characters – the delightful grandmother Abuela Claudia – wins the Lottery and it was as if someone had flicked a switch, galvanising the whole cast. From the powerful song 96,000 onwards – one of 18 remaining songs – they delivered an uninhibited, joyous collective performance that you just knew would be sustained until the very end of the show – and it was.

The 20-strong cast, whether dancers or singers, were much enhanced by the strong choreography of emerging star Drew McOnie. He had obviously worked closely with Director Luke Sheppard to integrate the dancers with the main characters. The cast list, interestingly, reflects this: their names are interspersed with the leads. These blurred demarcation lines added to the power of the ensemble. A refreshing change from the usual formula of a musical.

Another choreographic feat worth noting is that the stage is approximately the size of a tennis court. The performers snaked, bounded and fizzed around it with ease, using every square millimetre. Their moves were extensions of the warm Latin rhythms emanating from an orchestra of nine musicians, led by Phil Cornwell. At no time did things look cramped, even when they were stretching their limbs into lithe Latin moves – which was most of the time.

Notably, the audience were sitting on two sides of this raised stage, facing each other, and the cast gave equal attention to both sides right down to the timing of their well deserved bows at the end.

Even the vibe of the unusual venue was well suited to In the Heights. King’s Cross Theatre, a former goods shed, is currently hosting this musical in rep with The Railway Children. To get to your seat you actually walk over a railway track. This railway theme, and train shed feel, lend themselves beautifully to the edgy, upbeat vibe of the set. It is difficult to pick anyone out but if I must I would mention Antoine Murray-Straughan’s dynamic spinning jumps, and Josie Benson as Camila singing Enough, an enraged mother who had me quaking in my seat.

Four stars? No. Four and a half.

Continues in rep at King’s Cross Theatre until 3 January 2016

Claire Cohen is a freelance dance writer. After attending ballet classes for adult beginners at English National Ballet she took part in their Dance is the Word workshop, fusing her writing skills with an enthusiasm for ballet and dance. Find her on Twitter @balletbichon

Photos: Johan Persson

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