Celebrating a year in London, Lin Manuel Miranda’s original broadway musical In The Heights has been lighting up the Kings Cross Theatre since last September.
Now booking until January the 8th, the hip-hop musical follows the lives of a group of people living in the neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. It is a musical bursting with character, energy and heart.
Portraying the lives of the people living in the neighborhood, there is an immense feeling of family in the barrio. Usnavi, the local bodega owner is struggling to keep his business afloat, alongside his younger and rebellious cousin Sonny. Usnavi is desperately in love with beautician Vanessa, who is eager to get out of the barrio and pursue her big dreams. Meanwhile bright young Nina has returned home from Stamford University for the summer, with the news that she has dropped out after losing her scholarship because of sacrificing her grades to work two jobs.
Lin Manuel Miranda’s combination of musical theatre, rap, and Latino tones are integrated with Spanish to give the production a vibrant South American flavour. The score is powerfully composed, which is enhanced by the extraordinary energy of the cast.
Sam Mackay has expertly crafted the charismatic role of Usnavi. Mastering the fast-paced rap, sharp-witted dialogue and slick moves – he is everything you could hope for in a leading man.
We got the chance to sit down with the cast, and Sam expressed his love for the show and the multitude of numbers he gets to perform. “I love the opening, because I like the initial breaking of the fourth wall. I get to establish the feel of the show and relax the audience into it.
I like that conversation with the audience, it is a really exciting part of the show. It shows the audience that this is how we are doing it, and you’re part of it – you’re on the street with us.” Mackay approaches the role with a natural effortlessness. In particular, his nervous disposition and attempt to ‘play it cool’ around Vanessa is excellently funny.
Gabriela Garcia showcases her stellar vocals and convincing connection to her character as Nina. Her performance feels genuine, as she brings a wholesome warmth to the role.
Born and raised in Mexico, Garcia moved to London when she was 16 to pursue her career as an actress. “I relate to Nina because I had to leave my country, my family and my language to pursue my dreams,” she said. “I really identify with the number When You’re Home. Especially the moment within the song where Nina sings ‘my people’, because every time I sing it I think of my people back in Mexico.”
After Drew McOnie won the Olivier award this year for his choreography, it is safe to say that it is a production that boasts high-powered, dynamic movement. Created with a Latino twist, the dance is performed organically. Damien Buhagiar, who plays Sonny, loves the creative freedom they are given within the choreography, “It keeps it fresh, and keeps it alive,” he said.
Earlier last month, Lin Manuel Miranda showed up to watch the cast of In The Heights perform at the Kings Cross Theatre ahead of their cast change. “Whenever I think back to that day, I still feel like it never happened,” Gabriela told me.
“Thankfully it didn’t really register that he was here for the show. I knew, but I remember telling my boyfriend about the fact he was going to come, and my boyfriend kept saying ‘Gabby remember he is just another person, he is just like you and me.’ And I was like ‘You don’t understand, you don’t get it. He is Lin, he is the reason why I love musicals and the reason why I do this.”
Gabriela added: “When he came on stage I was uncontrollable sobbing, I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t believe it was happening right before my eyes.”
With Lin Manuel Miranda being so iconic around the world, Sam Mackay has a lot to live up to with his performance of Usnavi. We talked about the pressure he may feel, and he said: “I don’t feel it at all. I never really looked at it that way. I try to do my own thing with it and not worry about emulating.” Mackay makes the character his own and performs with highly animated personality and flair. I try to be honest and tell a story, I try to make a character that seems real to people,” he said.
The intimacy of the theatre is what provides the performance with so much heart. Set in traverse staging, the close proximity between the actors on stage and the audience allows a real connection to the characters and their stories. The relationships that are interwoven within the storyline spark the audience’s attachment to the characters.
The variety of distinct personalities in the production, of all ages and experiences, means you’d struggle to watch the show and not find a character or song to relate to. Underneath the innovatively staged numbers, is an honest and raw portrayal of the ups and downs of real life.
Having seen the show twice before, it is heart-warming to see the actors grow within the company. After watching Sarah Naudi play Daniela for the duration of the run, she now shines as Vanessa. Damien Buhagiar has recently returned to the production after performing as Sonny in the Southwark Playhouse.
“Coming back to it with a different cast and different energy has just topped it up for me. I understand the story more, I am investing more in the story which is really interesting, and I am finding points that I can play around with more,” Damien said.
The production’s combination of witty dialogue, remarkable score and superb casting will have you laughing, crying, and everything in-between.
In The Heights utterly unmissable.
Tickets for In The Heights can be found on their website here, and the Kings Cross Theatre offer £15 tickets for all performances for anyone aged under 25.