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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In The Heights
Southwark Playhouse Summer 2014; King's Cross Theatre Autumn 2015 - January 2017

The best and hottest dancing to be found on any London stage today – that's reason enough to rush to this London premiere of the 2009 Tony-winning Broadway hit. That it also has good songs, attractive characters, strong performances, high energy and even some honest sentimentality is a bonus. 

The musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (songs) and Quiara Alegria Hudes (book) has, as you may have guessed, a strong Hispanic flavour, but it is fully accessible and enjoyable for all. 

It is set in Washington Heights near the north end of Manhattan (Times Square is near 42nd Street; Washington Heights is around 185th), a Cuban-Dominican-Puerto Rican neighbourhood that the musical chooses to see as warm, vibrant and friendly, virtually a small town in which everyone knows and loves everyone else. 

There's no paucity of plot. The young bodega owner loves the beauty parlour girl, who thinks only of moving away. The one local girl who did get out, to a prestigious California university, returns with the embarrassment of dropping out and resumes a romance with an ambitious lad her parents don't think good enough for her. 

In the course of a hot midsummer weekend two local businesses fold, two romances stumble along, someone wins the lottery, a power outage leads to looting, someone dies, and in the midst of all this they do the only sensible thing, throw a Carnival. 

The street Carnival is one of several big, flashy stage-filling dance numbers – there's another in a dance club, one celebrating the lottery win, and a couple masquerading as ordinary street scenes. 

But the whole show is driven by dance, with hardly any occasion – a plot event, changing the set or just standing around – when somebody isn't celebrating the emotion of the moment or just moving to an inner Latin rhythm. 

Drew McOnie's choreography is samba-based, with occasional touches of street dance, and along with being infectious fun, the high-energy dancing contributes to the sense of a trans-Latin community with a living culture.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's songs range from high-speed rap through every flavour of Hispanic-American pop to strong dramatic soliloquies.

'It Won't Be Long Now' gives voice to the ambitious girl's dreams of moving out, '96,000' lets everyone imagine what they would do with a lottery win, and 'Inutil' expresses the fear of the college girl's father that he has failed in not helping her rise above him, while 'The Club', 'Carnival Del Barrio' and others just set everyone's hips swaying. 

Luke Sheppard directs with verve and a sensitivity to the image of a warm and living community so essential to the show, and there are strong performances throughout, with special credit to Sam Mackay as the lovesick grocer whose rap commentary holds the show together, Eve Polycarpou as the loving and beloved community matriarch, Emma Kingston and Christina Modestou as the girl who dreams of getting out and the one whose dreams have been stalled, and David Bedella as the father whose love and hope for his daughter will not be broken.

If there is any justice (and an available theatre), this exciting production will have life beyond its month at this admirable 180-seat playhouse.

But don't take the chance and wait for it to come to the West End. Get down to Southwark and join the Carnival.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  In The Heights - Southwark Playhouse 2014

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