I've always found there to be an intrinsic problem with the musical 'In The Heights' that originally opened on Broadway in 2008, where it took home the Tony Award for Best Musical. To me, the show has always felt forced and artificial - it's a cross culture musical that clumsily forces the lives of a community living in Manhattan's Washington Heights into a very 'downtown' musical form. Something that has the potential to be urban, edgy and boundary changing ends up fitting the same structure of 'Fiddler on the Roof', complete with "Anatevka" style ending as the community begin to pack up and leave their lives.
It's a problem that the Southwark Playhouse's production certainly addresses but has not fully solved. On Broadway, a short train ride down from the infamous heights you felt somewhat connected to the location, but this London premiere lacks specificity - despite the repeated lyrics you really could be anywhere. The musical presents a somewhat Disney-fied look at a community where life seems to be a happy song rather than a gritty melting pot where everyone is facing real problems.
The main dramatic impetuous revolves around Nina (a wonderful Christina Modestou), the one who 'got out' of the heights and made it to Stanford. As she returns to her roots after dropping out, her parents are forced to sell the business in order to support her future education. It's somewhat depressing to think how important that sacrifice may have seemed back in 2007 when a B.A degree opened doors in life, but here in 2014 where the world and his wife seems to have letters after their name, you can't help thinking the poor girl would have much better prospects going into her family business.
There's a real lack of drama in Quiara Alegria Hudes' book. You are left in the interval wondering if a) the lights will get turned back on? and b) will the man selling shaved ice find a customer? Hardly gripping stuff. Each character is a two dimensional cut out - you really struggle to care or invest in any of their stories - despite the efforts of the cast and direction.
The intimate surroundings of the Southwark Playhouse however certainly lift the material. This is a spectacularly produced musical, and despite the drawbacks in the book and narrative this is fringe theatre on a completely different level. Luke Sheppard's direction is spot on using the confines of the thrust stage effectively throughout. Enhanced by takis's set design which features many exciting touches along the way, the show seems to have West End transfer written all over it.
The cast are uniformly strong, with an exciting mix of recent graduates alongside experienced performers such as the wonderful David Bedella, who presides over the community as patriarch Kevin, Nina's father. Some supporting performances verged on the edge of caricatures with wandering accents and a little too much musical theatre gloss to ever feel authentically 'urban'. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt provides most of the comedy as hairdresser Daniella, and it's her songs that land most successfully with the audience.
Whilst Drewe McOnie's choreography is outstandingly energetic, I found it was the softer moments of the show that were the most poignant. Bedella's 'Inutil' and Modestou's 'Breathe' provided much needed characterisation, accompanied with the right level of sensitive danced accompaniment. It's so refreshing to see modern choreography delivered to enhance the story and the narrative - here McOnie turns movement into language - the definitive mark of a successful choreographer.
Problems with the sound mean many of Lin-Mauel Miranda's often witty lyrics are lost, and the well executed vocals sometimes sit uncomfortably against the (outstanding) band. The vibrant score is hardly a hit a minute, but is refreshingly eclectic despite the two-too-many meaningless duets.
This is a formidable production that clearly has its eyes set on greater heights. Whether or not London audiences will embrace the musical as heartily as they did on Broadway is unknown, but drawbacks in the material aside - this production has raised the bar for London fringe musicals.