By Bradley Storer
Melbourne music theatre company Stage Art score a major win this year with the Australian premiere of In the Heights, the musical which opened on Broadway in 2008 and introduced the world to the lives and vibrancy of the urban Latin community in New York City.
This fresh and modern approach to music theatre is cemented in the opening image, a spectacular hip -hop combination from Graffiti Pete (Peter Sette), as well as the musical’s titular opening number which combines extensive rap and lush Latino music and Salsa rhythms that, under the musical direction of Cameron Thomas, throbs with energy and passion. The incredibly talented ensemble handle Yvette Lee‘s complex and pyrotechnic choreography with astonishing ease, although the group numbers tended to blur together towards the end of Act One before roaring back to life in ‘The Club’ sequence.
The cast as a whole should be congratulated, delivering strong performances on nearly every front. Stephen Lopez as Usnavi, the emotional centre and sometimes narrator of the show, brings both charisma and an adorable awkwardness to the role, as well as amazing vocal dexterity and diction in Usnavi’s many rap-based streams of consciousness. As his love interest Vanessa, Bianca Baykara showed off thrilling vocal power and confident dancing, but seemed a little unsure of herself in the role at times. Anna Armenia as Nina had an inexhaustible belt and a sweet stage presence, and James Elmer as Benny made a comic masterpiece out of ‘Benny’s Dispatch’ as well as revealing a lovely pop tenor voice in the character’s more romantic moments with Nina.
Francesca Arena was stunning in the role of Abuela Claudia, the grandmotherly figure who embodies the strength and determination of the Washington Heights community – her tour-de-force story of her journey from her home country, ‘Pacienca y Fé’, was an Act One highlight, Arena unleashing roof-shaking vocals and a gospel-like intensity. Laura Marcucci owned the stage as Daniela, the ballsy local salon owner, in the gossipy ‘No Me Diga’ and as the rousing ring leader of ‘Carnival del Barrio’. Andrew Doyle was cheeky and heart-warming as the frenetic Sonny, Usnavi’s shop assistant.
Director James Cutler and the entire creative team should be incredibly proud of this show and bringing this wonderful story to our shores, which even on opening night had the audience almost leaping to their feet in pure exhilaration and joy.
Venue: Chapel off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel St, Prahran.
Date: 18 February – 8 March
Time: 7:30 Tuesday – Sunday, 2pm Matinee Saturday and Sunday
Tickets: A Reserve $59 Full, $55 Concession / B Reserve $49 Full, $45 Concession
Bookings: www.chapeloffchapel.com.au , Phone: 03 8290 7000, Email: email@example.com , at the door.
Image by Belinda Strodder.