Here’s a show to warm even the coldest winter night. Luke Sheppard’s fizzing production of this vibrant musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (whose Hamilton is a hot ticket in New York) originally played at London’s Southwark Playhouse. Now it transfers to King’s Cross Theatre, where its fabulous, engaging cast spill out on to the stage like an armful of wriggling puppies liberated on to a lawn. True, many of the plot lines are a little cheesy, but there’s so much heat here, the cheese bubbles irresistibly.
We’re in New York’s Washington Heights, amid the Hispanic community, where it appears to be a condition of residence that you can slip effortlessly into hip-swivelling motion at the drop of a note. Everyone sings, everyone dances — and everyone has troubles. Nice guy Usnavi (Sam Mackay) runs a cheap bodega, but dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic and is too shy to declare his feelings to the gorgeous, but financially struggling Vanessa (Jade Ewen). Kevin’s cab company, built up over 20 years of hard graft, is under threat — as is Daniela’s hairdressing salon. Clever, sassy Nina (Lily Frazer) is home from university, nursing a dark secret. The older characters are losing what they worked for; the younger characters can’t get started. Everyone’s in limbo; everything’s in flux; ways of life are threatened. Poverty, gentrification and restlessness challenge everyone.
But there’s also music. And from the moment Antoine Murray-Straughan’s athletic Graffiti Pete launches the show by flipping across the stage, music drives the pulse, softens the blows and soothes the soul. Miranda combines vernacular styles — hip-hop meeting salsa — to create funny, yearning or exuberant melodies. Stand-outs include a droll, gossipy song “No Me Diga” in the hairdressing salon and an impromptu carnival number “Carnaval Del Barrio” when the power goes out — both led by the lovably bossy Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Daniela. There is a soaring solo “Paciencia Y Fe” from matriarchal figure Abuela Claudia (Eve Polycarpou) and a splendid laying-down-of-the-law “Enough” from Kevin’s long-suffering wife, Camila (Josie Benson).
There are too many plot-lines, too easily resolved in Quiara Alegría Hudes’s script — there’s also a rather unlikely plot twist — and though the issues are real and pressing, the treatment is superficial. But the infectious music, the dazzling choreography from Drew McOnie, and the generous and witty performances from the cast leave any reservations in a heap on the sidewalk. This is a sizzling delight.
To January 3, intheheightslondon.com