What is it about the streets of New York that inspires iconic musicals?
Award winning composer-lyricist, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is currently the hottest name on Broadway with his latest musical, Hamilton, the must-see show of the moment.
But his meteoric rise to fame started with In The Heights, an urban fairy tale that sizzles with a pulsating Latino/hip-hop score, electrifying choreography and an inspirational, very American, story to warm the cockles of your heart.
It won fans from its first outing in London last year and has now returned, for a very brief reprise, at King’s Cross Theatre.
Would the magic have been there if the musical had been set in a rundown London neighbourhood suffering similar problems of poverty, unemployment and racial tension? I doubt it.
What is apparent, from the storming 20-minute opening number featuring street poet Usnavi rapping while the company writhe and wiggle to an explosive salsa beat, is that British musicals need to wake up and reinvent themselves if they are to attract new and young audiences.
Our home grown shows, even those staged in the West End but which originated on Broadway, look hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch.
In The Heights has won a multitude of awards and every one of them is well deserved. The story may be a little clichéd but its presentation is bang on trend.
To set the scene we’re in Washington Heights, the wrong end of Manhatten, with its melting pot of nationalities. Most residents are either Puerto Rican or from the Dominican Republic.
Miranda has written a love letter to a barrio now in the throes of a regeneration but which has, in the recent past, been one of the most crime-ridden and dangerous in the city.
But In The Heights gives us a single street where everyone is poor but happy. There’s not a punk or junkie in sight.
They’re struggling to live the American Dream, working hard in the hope of making a better life for their kids.
Former mechanic Kevin and his wife Camila have spent 20 years building up a taxi business so that their only daughter had a chance at something better.
In a country where everyone has to pay huge sums for a top education, they are rightly proud when Nina earns a scholarship to the prestigious Stanford university.
Only now she’s back, broken by working two jobs just to live and failing to keep up her grades.
The neighbourhood hasn’t changed, only grown older. Usnavi is still running the local general store and caring for the area’s matriarch, Abuela, his workshy cousin Sonny occasionally helping out.
While the mouthy, and very pregnant, Daniela is still dispensing gossip over hair extensions in her salon though is facing being forced out, by rising rents, into moving to another neighbourhood.
Quiara Alegría Hudes’ book brings alive a community on the cusp of change, where freedom and happiness is found through hard work and ambition (there’s a message for some of Britain’s youth).
It stresses the importance of helping one another, caring for your neighbours (another message we should take to heart) and races learning to live together.
Yes, it’s cheesy, but superbly put together. Miranda’s blistering hot music has you jiggling in your seat and there are standout performances by the entire cast.
David Bedella has never appeared more conventional and conservative (with both a large and small ‘C’) as over-protective father, Kevin, who will do anything to have his daughter achieve his ambitions for success.
And Sam Mackay as Usnavi (great joke about his name, by the way) provides the lynchpin to the narration as the whole of life passes through his bodega.
But it is the women who own this show – from Eve Polycarpou’s wonderfully dignified Abuela and Josie Benson as Kevin’s quite terrifying wife Camila (you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her!) to Jade Ewen as hairdresser Vanessa and the splendid Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s sassy, streetwise, motherly salon owner.
Lily Frazer shines as Nina with just the right mixture of innocence and independence, a good girl who regains her confidence and ambition after a trip home.
Antoine Murray-Straughan gives an athletic performance as Graffiti Pete. He’s an astonishing street dancer.
And Drew McOnie’s dazzling choreography gets the best out of a talented ensemble.
Don’t miss In The Heights. It re-writes the rule book on creating a hit musical.
At King’s Cross Theatre until November 1.
In The Heights
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights is a love letter to a New York neighbourhood and it rewrites the rule book on creating a hit musical.