At the end of press night for In The Heights only one of the national newspaper critics wasn’t on his feet and grooving to the beat. It’s that infectious. Of course if you’re further from hip-hop and closer to hip replacement, prefer your musicals with a solid plot, familiar characters and a few old tunes Doris Day used to warble, or write for the Guardian, you’ll be more comfortable at Pajama Game.
To be fair, Michael Billington wasn’t the only one to point out that the structure of the show leaves a lot to be desired: the Standard found the plot ‘feather light’ with ‘few reasons to be invested in the characters’ plights’. We could add that a muddied sound design meant we didn’t hear the smart lyrics or snappy one-liners clearly and later relied on Spotify — although this apparently is less of a problem if you don’t sit too near the front.
The characters are a bonded community from the far north tip of Manhattan, separated from wealthier midtown by no-go parts of Harlem and peopled by vast interconnected families from the Dominican Republic. It could be West Side Story if only they ate less and fought more. Some say the fact there’s no drugs or serious crime in In the Heights is part of its charm, others feel that what this show needs is a good stabbing to give it any dramatic tension at all.
But, but, but: we are straying from the point that this is a glorious, exuberant, urgent, pulsing conflation of music and dance and so who cares about plot. In Luke Sheppard‘s staging and in what we are sure will be Drew McOnie’s award-winning choreography the small arena is filled and filled again with vigorous, exciting and uplifting dance, fusing hip-hop and salsa, and also because much of it involves hustling coupling, a sort of Strictly Ballroom vibe too. It is never less than exhilarating and occasionally actually breath-taking.
Without a doubt, this is the best dancing you can see on stage in London.
The band are on fire, the painterly graffiti'd vertical set by Takis gives as much room as possible to the dancefloor, Howard Hudson’s finessed lighting design colours and punctuates the action superbly — the Fireworks routine is particularly effective — and as crescendo builds on crescendo this is a show you experience in your chest, not your head.
It’s not relentless: the production takes the impact down a notch at times and there are two lovely, sensitive songs by the least cartoonish of the characters — Inutil, an apologia for not being more effective in his children’s lives, sung tenderly by David Bedella as the taxi firm owner who sacrifices everything for his daughter’s education — and stifled by family and neighbourly attention, Christina Modestou as the daughter reminds herself to just Breathe.
It’s great there’s such a distinct alternative to the West End jukebox compilations and traditional book musicals, and exciting that the form can be modernised and updated like this — but it’s definitely a show for Generation Rent.
In The Heights continues at Southwark Playhouse until 7 June. Monday-Saturday at 8pm, Thursday matinee 2.30pm and Saturday at 3.30pm. All seats are unreserved and £22 (£18 concessions). We saw this production on a ticket provided by Mark Senior PR.