It’s summer in the city. Positively stultifying way up above 180th street, where nobody has air-conditioning and the A train is the only way out. Donald Trump is spitting on immigrants on a crackly radio, but the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and Haitians and the rest of the foreign-blooded underclass of Washington Heights have bigger fish to fry.
Usnavi, our orphan narrator, is trapped running a debt-ridden bodega, cared for by surrogate grandmother and ailing neighbourhood matriarch Claudia. He’s the lifeblood of these parts but he longs for a simpler life in the Dominican Republic. Love interest Vanessa wants out too, a place downtown away from an alcoholic mother and her caring but catty salon colleagues Daniela and Carla. Nina has made it all the way to Stanford, carrying the impossible weight of her family and community, but is failing and lost her scholarship. Her parents Kevin and Camila, who followed the American dream to New York, barely make ends meet running a taxi business. Their employee Benny has eyes for Nina but is an outsider in their Latino world.
And somewhere in the middle of it all, a young composer is learning a trade that will see him become one of the most influential artists of his generation.
In The Heights will forever be known as the musical that came before Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s audition piece to make his blockbuster American history show now printing money in London, New York and touring around the United States.
But that sells what came before short. In The Heights is an extraordinarily accomplished achievement, a wildly contemporary musical of our times, more relevant in 2018 even than when it first hit the stage in 2005. This home-spun love letter to Miranda’s neighbourhood and people, with an infectious salsa-fuelled, rap-punctuated score of instantly hummable tracks, became an unlikely commercial success on the Great White Way, running near three years and earning an armful of Tony Awards including the best musical trophy, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
Far from struggling to find Latino performers to fill out the characters, it becomes a showcase of diverse Australian talent that shames other shows who whitewash the stage.
Remember, Miranda had never written a piece of theatre before. In The Heights started as a college project. When he was awarded the MacArthur Fellows “Genius Grant” in 2015, few recipients have so completely embodied the daunting moniker.
Translating such a personal, ethnically specific story for an Australian audience – and then casting it – is no mean feat. Others have tried and failed badly. A Melbourne production at Chapel off Chapel was an admirable Australian debut.
But what Sydney audiences can witness at the Hayes Theatre over the next month – or at least if they have tickets; the run was completely sold out before opening night – is something quite special. Adeptly cast, fitly designed (Simon Greer’s set, Elizabeth Franklin’s costumes), tightly accompanied (musical director Lucy Bermingham), electrifyingly choreographed (Amy Campbell); unchallenged by restricted budgets and even more restricted stage dimensions under the sure directorial hands of Luke Joslin. Blue Saint Productions produces for the Hayes, following the success of its production of Violet in 2015.
Saying it’s unfair to single out cast members is as lazy as it is, in this case, true. Far from struggling to find Latino performers to fill out the characters, it becomes a showcase of diverse Australian talent that shames other shows who whitewash the stage.
Ryan Gonzalez (Usnavi) channels Lin-Manuel Miranda but riffs with eye-popping skill. Olivia Vasquez (Vanessa) is a firecracker on the dance floor. Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji (Benny) is a reality show triple threat made good. Luisa Scrofani (Nina) has a belt to lift the roof. The three older performers – Alexander Palacio (Kevin), Ana Maria Belo (Camilla) and Margi De Ferranti (Claudia) – layer heart-rending pathos. Marty Alix (Sonny), Monique Montez (Daniela), Libby Asciak (Carla) and Stephen Tannos (Pete) all find moments to shine. Richard Valdez as the shaved ice vendor damn near steals the show.
It’s not perfect. The second act isn’t as strong as the first. Some of the minor characters are broadly drawn (and, necessarily, acted). And its earnestness has just a note or two of didacticism. Sometimes the stakes don’t seem high enough. Which is as much a problem as a refreshing pleasure. Small lives are given enormous voices.
And boy, it feels so wonderfully alive. Which is not something you can say about all that many musicals. Truly joyous stuff.
In The Heights plays the Hayes Theatre until April 15. New tickets may be released on the day of performances.