Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (reviewed opening night 2 February)
If you’ve never visited New York it really is a place surfeited with immeasurable culture, architecture and history, home to the Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty and Rockefeller Center, to name just a few of its iconic attractions. It is also home to many ghettos and working class neighbourhoods filled with vibrant migrant communities and stories of hope, courage, new beginnings and aspirations to live the American Dream. For one such community, In the Heights offers a lyrical love letter to the people with Latin American roots living in Washington Heights, a neighbourhood located in Manhattan in New York City.
This production at The Concourse Chatswood is presented by PACA Productions and is directed and musically directed by Rodrigo Medina Noel and William Pulley. It is co-choreographed by Janina Hamerlok and Alex Ocampo. The musical is conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the book is by Quiara Alegria Hudes.
Not being from a Latino background myself, and unfamiliar with the story, my guest for the evening was Miss Lunne Perez, a model and singer with Chilean roots, who is a huge fan of the movie version. If anyone could give me objective feedback about the production, it would definitely be her! She was blown away by the musical version and incredibly impressed to see how much attention to detail and love had been poured into the production. She generously shared her glowing feedback with the PACA crew at the after party.
Personally, I found many scenes relatable and memorable as a daughter of immigrants from a different ethnic community. The language of theatre is universal and this production spoke with heart and music. I found myself engrossed in the scene of a father, Kevin Rosario (played by Ivan Amaro) singing about his determination to work hard, and rise above the normalised family abuse that plagues many traditional cultures (I can relate!) His subsequent love for his daughter is expressed in his determination that she will finish her tertiary studies no matter what, and makes a life-altering decision to support it, which completely shocks the rest of the family, as well as the employees of his family business. Meanwhile, a convergent storyline explores the sudden and unexpected wealth of their surrogate grandmother, Abuela Claudia (played by Irene Toro), after she has contemplated her attitude towards having patience and faith as her guiding principles. There are many convergent storylines in this production, and these two were the highlights for me.
I also enjoyed the blend of musical styles featured in this production, with hip-hop, rap and Latin rhythms all giving it a contemporary and authentic vibe. The hooky gangsta rap sung by Usnavi De Le Vega (played by Henry Lopez Lopez) gives Eminem a run for his money.
The flow of the script was a little hard to follow initially, and unlike musicals I’ve seen this one did not feature any insurmountable villains. Domestic realism and the struggle to survive in a capitalist world took centre stage, with Act 2 inverting the usual arc from raising the stakes. The onset of sudden money seemed (in my view) to provide an easy way out for the characters. I liked the ebb and flow of change presented in the storylines, but didn’t quite connect to the overly-sentimental musical numbers. This is more to do with the script, than the production itself.
My friend also pointed out that a chief narrator (as per the film) would have helped to provide a bit more clarity and context.
Another stand-out role for me was that of the mother, Camilia Rosario (played by Paulina Johnson). Drawing inspiration from strong matriarchal figures, she is the ultimate Queen / Maternal Dictator that every little girl and boy should be raised by. Respect for the family, and ultimately, respect for self, is a must.
My friend particularly enjoyed the scenes in the hairdressing salon run by Daniela (played by Belen Johnson) and Carla (played by Fernanda Murialdo), complimenting it was “very true” to her experience of Latin American culture.
A final shoutout to the set builders and designers for creating a wonderful scene that took me back to my visits to New York many years ago; the Brooklyn Bridge and fireworks reminded me of the bridge’s 125th birthday celebrations I witnessed in 2008. The shopfronts use a pleasing palette of colours from an iconic era of rap and pop music that gives the production a sense of immersion and realism. The production overall is very entertaining and offers a culturally rich story that speaks directly to audiences from Latinx backgrounds, as well as theatre lovers across Australia.
In the Heights is playing at The Concourse Chatswood until 11 February 2024. For tickets and showtimes, go to https://paca.sydney/in-the-heights-sydney/ or https://aucentury.sales.ticketsearch.com/sales/salesevent/114180
Images: Grant Leslie Photography