rmc28: Rachel standing in front of the entrance to the London Eye pier (Default)
[personal profile] rmc28
I went to see this a fortnight ago in London. The short version: I really, really loved it; the dancing and staging are both amazing; the music has been taking over my brain nearly as much as a certain other musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda; I will definitely be going to see it again in the next few months. (If you want to come see it with me, let me know; it's taking bookings until 8th January)

In The Heights is currently at the Kings Cross Theatre. This was custom-built for The Railway Children, which shares the theatre (the bit of me that loves logistics is fascinated by the effort that must go into the switchover), and if you look closely you can see bits of that scenery tucked away in the darkness behind the stage on each side.

The audience seating is in two "platforms" either side of a central stage, and actors enter and leave from the buildings set on each side. We had front row seats on platform two - to our left was Daniela's salon and the Rosario's taxi office, with fire escapes either side, to our right was Usnavi's store with a balcony/apartment over it (usually Abuela Claudia's balcony, at least once Benny's balcony). The stage was about six inches off the ground, and close enough to rest my feet on while sitting in my seat, if I were inclined to be so rude. The dancers don't just come to the incredibly-close edge of the stage, they come right off, down in front of us and up the steps into the audience at times.

Enormous care has clearly been taken with the staging so that both platforms get a good and equal view of the play. The choreography and positioning of actors is carefully symmetric - during the song 96000 where you have four characters singing at once, they are each standing at a corner of a square singing out in different directions to the audience - right down to the performer bows at the end, which are all done twice, once towards each platform (and in character!).

The theatre is really close to Kings Cross station; at times you can hear the trains rumbling by through the action on stage.  It does seem to work well with the setting, where the elevated train drives everyone insane. It's also very very handy for getting home. The production finished at 22:58 and we walked briskly to comfortably catch the 23:14 back to Cambridge.

I deliberately chose not to find out anything about the musical ahead of seeing it, apart from what you can find on the production's website, and this little speech Lin-Manuel made when he went to see the London production a few weeks prior. I didn't know any of the songs or music or quite what to expect ... and I was blown away. I tend to have a strong reaction to live performance anyway, but I was utterly transfixed and absorbed. The dancing is amazing and tremendously physical and complex, and so is the wordplay, and I was thoroughly enjoying it. Then a few songs in, there's a line where Nina's father Kevin sings

I will not
Be the reason
That my family can't succeed


and the words and music went straight through my hindbrain and a shiver went right down my spine, and I was riveted. (I do have to note that Kevin goes on to demonstrate some truly terrible decision-making and communication in the throes of this sentiment, however much I identify with it.) That moment was sheer magic. As was 96000, as was the amazing end-of-act-one song Powerless, where the cast all bring out their mobile phones to light up the "basement club" they're all in when the power is cut, as was the Carneval de Barrio in Act Two with the two fire escapes pirouetting in the centre of the stage with Usnavi and (someone else?) singing on them just before the dramatic entry of Nina with news ...

It's a really ensemble piece: there's the two romantic couples, Nina and Benny and Usnavi and Vanessa, but there's also Nina's parents, and Usnavi's cousin Sonny and Abuela Claudia, and Daniela and Carla from the salon, and the Piragua guy and the graffitti guy. I really appreciated that there were multiple age groups represented. I think Usnavi & Vanessa are maybe halfway between Nina and her parents in age? Abuela Claudia has to be at least in her 70s, while Sonny and graffitti guy are still in their teens. I also liked that the non-romantic, non-family relationships were also shown as strong and important: Usnavi with each of Nina and Benny, Kevin and Camila; Daniela, Carla and Vanessa, and their friendship with Nina. It does rather show up what a sausagefest Hamilton is.

Hamilton was obviously the background context in which I saw In The Heights. The scope is much smaller - it's not the birth of a nation and the creation of a new political and financial system, it's just the "little" concerns of "little people" in a poor (gentrifying) part of New York. Stay in university or drop out; sell the business or keep at it; date someone or break up; and shaking everything up - what to do with a lottery win? 96G ain't enough to retire / I'll have enough to knock your ass off its axis / you'll have a knapsack full of jack after taxes.

But there are similar themes, of legacy and family and expectations; Usnavi's final song is about knowing everyone's story, and the line from there to Eliza Hamilton's Who Tells Your Story is pretty clear. The wordplay and musical dexterity I've grown used to with Hamilton is definitely there in In The Heights. I knew I wasn't getting it all in the theatre but I didn't expect to: I've been listening to Hamilton most days for over nine months and I still find new things now and again. I bought the cast recording of In The Heights the day after seeing it, and have listened to it repeatedly since. I've still not got to the end yet because I keep repeating the songs.

The range of musical styles is rather narrower in In The Heights, all Latin American in feel, though there's still the use of different styles of singing and/or rapping to go with each character (and in 96000 this is especially obvious, I love it). Hamilton is sung-through, but In The Heights is definitely not. Important plot developments take place out of song, and in one case entirely in dance. It doesn't make sense as a complete story from the cast album alone, in the way that Hamilton does. I am so glad that I gave myself that first full-immersion experience of it, and now have the time to get to know the music better with the context in mind before I go see it again

(I have CDs of both Hamilton and In The Heights, plus the full book and lyrics of the latter, and am happy to lend any or all out to local friends who want to find out if it might be their kind of thing.)

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rmc28: Rachel standing in front of the entrance to the London Eye pier (Default)
Rachel Coleman

March 2017

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