I was shafted out of seeing this the first time around. I was nearly broke, and just able to afford the discounted tickets you get with the 5 ticket scheme from Southwark Playhouse – and then, after buying it, discovered I couldn’t actually apply the ticket to the remaining performances of In The Heights. My money was gone (they wouldn’t give me a refund), and I was gutted. In the Heights was not going to happen because I did not have the money to go. I was pretty gutted, but poor is poor and Southwark Playhouse had absolutely no intention of giving me my money back.
Fast forward some three years and suddenly Miss Life in the Cheap Seats is actually able to afford a £20 theater ticket without running out of money before payday, and the return of In the Heights to the King’s Cross Theater meant a glorious kismet where I could FINALLY GO SEE IT. Wahoo! I got a ticket for OPENING NIGHT baby even though this meant I was going to have to dash from my train arriving from Oop North to Kings Cross in order to make curtain time – that said, this theater is LITERALLY behind King’s Cross station and couldn’t be any easier to get to – it wouldn’t have taken me ten minutes to get there if I’d gone the right way, heading towards but not all the way to Granary Square (probably your best choice for a pre-show dinner if you’re not just racing there like I was).
And … well … how was it? It was like this: I cried twice AND I was dancing in my seat. Actually, at the end I was dancing in the aisle (as the cast headed offstage to boogie with us lesser beings). I knew the show was set in a poor neighbourhood in New York City, but since I don’t know those neighborhoods of New York City, I didn’t know that Washington Heights was the Hispanic neighborhood – and not folks from Mexico but this incredible conglomeration of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican Republic and all sorts of other amazing places where the culture is less about mariachi and caballeros and more about SALSA. Whoopee! All of this dancing and fabulous music … and then mixed into this is the cross cultural street sounds of hip hop/rap – which is what is sung to us by our protagonist, Usnavi. He’s got a crush on Vanessa – but she’s in the more traditional dancing crowd. Does this mean the show has chosen to represent the different musical interests as clashing, so we can have a Jets vs Sharks showdown? No, Lin-Manuel Miranda knows that the problems in the neighbourhood aren’t about petty differences like this; they’re about poverty and (to some extent) gentrification.
And it’s the poverty that, to me, drove the most compelling storyline. In a world where we’re really trying to sell the story that everyone has the opportunity to rise via education, In The Heights puts it in our faces that just being smart can’t compensate for being poor. Nina has been the one everyone has looked up to as the one who would make it out; but to get by at uni, she would need to, essentially, force her parents to sell everything they own, and bring them back down to the level they started at. It’s a heart breaking position to be in (and if you know the stats, even if she has the money success will not be guaranteed). The song her father sings about this situation – “Inutil (Useless)” – was the first moment I cried during this show. I’ve just never heard a song in a musical about how terrible it is to be able to do nothing to help your children and this caught so many emotions just right.
Throughout, the show has several opportunities to go for easy solutions, but deftly avoids them to keep the action fresh and unexpected. The men doing backflips on stage, the Piraguas man, the surprising blossoming of love (and harvest of death) – all mixed with so much Spanish that I found myself wondering how well the British audience was doing at following along. But I had no problems at all, and ended the night feeling joyous and triumphant at having been present at one of the most amazing musicals written in the 21st century. Wow! I know I had to wait three years to see this the first time, but I promise I am going to be back before the November 1st end of its run, because this show is too good to not enjoy every little minute of it twice.
(This review is for the performance that took place on Saturday, October 3, 2015. It continues through November 1st. If you’ve seen the show, you might enjoy this article about where the characters might all wind up in ten years – but it contains spoilers so be warned!)