Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, a multiple Tony-winner which opened on Broadway back in 2008, is a large-hearted affair. Set in New York’s Washington Heights, a neighbourhood with a large Latin American population, it charts the stories of a number of characters, different generations of immigrants and their American-born offspring – money worries, family strife, love both requited and not – over a number of sticky city nights.
There’s a gentleness to all this, a sense of affection. The harsher side of urban life is not up for dissection here; despite the heatwave, this isn’t Do The Right Thing. Miranda is keener to explore the way immigrant communities work, the interconnectedness, the support network; this is undercut only by the poignant feeling that ever-rising rents will soon start to have an impact on this way of life, diluting things, forcing people to move out and apart.
Luke Sheppard’s London production captures the show’s energy, its capacity for uplift. It’s a deliciously vibrant production, the stage an arena for Drew McOnie’s often dizzying choreography. The music meanwhile is a mix of Latin sounds and hip-hop influences. The lyrics are consistently smart and funny, even if the sound quality means that some of the zippier lines get lost.
The performances are nicely judged, giving necessary shape to a large cast of characters, some drawn in marker pen, others in fine-liner. The heart of the piece is provided by Sam MacKay as the good-natured bodega-owner Usnavi, a decent guy who feels a little adrift following the death of his parents. Not that he’s lacking in family, the production makes clear, not with Eve Polycarpou’s Abuela Claudia and Damian Buhagiar’s mouthy young Sonny living nearby. Everyone looks out for one another in this neighbourhood; book-writer Quiara Alegria Hudes makes it clear that this comes at the cost of privacy – everyone knows each other’s business too and a girl can’t drop out of university without everyone soon finding out about it – but the production, in the main, is a celebration of community.
The set, a mix graffiti tags and corrugated metal, is relegated to the back wall, so that Sheppard and McOnie can fill the Southwark Playhouse stage with popping bodies and twirling skirts. There are a couple of stand-out sequences – the dramatic double of ‘The Club’ and ‘Blackout’ which ends the first act among them – but the production as a whole has a cumulative cheering effect, drawing the audience in, lifting them up.
Admittedly there’s not a huge amount of room for nuance when it comes to character though David Bedella does a good job of conveying paternal turmoil, as a hard-working man determined to do well by his family. That’s not to say the production is without emotional texture; while the plotting is predictable – Usnavi’s sold one of his customers a winning lottery, where might this be leading? – and there are few hard edges of which to speak, the tone is rarely cloying and a couple of moments are genuinely and unexpectedly moving in their exploration of what it is to move to another country in search of a better life, to leave one family behind but find another.
Director Luke Sheppard on bringing In The Heights to London.