Review: In The Heights, Sydney Opera House

This show not only sizzles with supergiant energy but it’s a timely rebuttal to the whitewashing of Australian identity.

The cast of In the Heights. Photo by Clare Hawley.

As Sydney sweats through a week-long heatwave, the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation at Bennelong Point has been transformed into the sweltering streets of Washington Heights, Manhattan, home to a bustling Latin-American community.

It’s the summer setting for a web of intimate stories which weave in much bigger themes of minority struggle, inequality, love, compassion, and the vitality of community ties.

It’s the precursor to the most critically acclaimed musical of all time, yet it is far more radical in its representation of class, race, and gender than its more hallowed relative.

It’s an effervescent production bubbling with energy, talent, joy, and dynamism and pulsing with the beats of salsa, soul, merengue, street-dance, and hip-hop.

It’s a masterclass in the benefits of cultural diversity, offset against the tired, cynical racism weaponised by those in power.

It’s Blue Saint Productions sensational performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Broadway musical In the Heights, and it’s the much needed pre-Invasion Day antidote to the resurgent white supremacist patriarchal nationalism ailing our multicultural democracy.

The cast of In the Heights. Photo by Clare Hawley.

Despite its international resonance, In the Heights is a very local tale about Usnavi, a beloved bodega owner who dreams of returning to his homeland in the Dominican Republic, and those who swirl around him. There’s Abuela Claudia, his matriarchal Cuban neighbour who strikes it lucky, Vanessa, the object of his affection who yearns for life beyond the barrio, and Nina, his childhood friend who made it all the way to Stanford but not for long, it seems.

There are more outstanding features in this return season of the original sold-out 2018 Hayes production than Trump’s lies since becoming President, so space constraints deny even an attempt at a comprehensive Washington Post style list (click here and here for just a few of them).

Instead, picking tickets from a raffle barrel in which almost every one is a winner, praise be to Stephen Lopez’s Usnavi when he plays up his dorky charm in an effort to woo Vanessa: ‘That’s what all the ladies say. I remind them of their grandma’. Light-hearted references to class politics are a welcome touch, especially from Usnavi’s cousin Sonny, played by Marty Alix: ‘I’m the Robin Hood of el barrio’ and ‘I’m starting a union: underage cousins of bodega workers unite!’, as well as from Vanessa, played by Olivia Vasquez: ‘I’m not good enough to sit with the bourgeoisie’. Luisa Scrofani’s singing voice as Nina is transporting in a way that Sydney Trains could never be and Ana Maria Belo brings fire to the role of Nina’s mother Camilla. Amy Campbell’s choreography and the ensemble’s delivery are sublime.

The cast of In the Heights. Photo by Clare Hawley.

In a piece in The Guardian just prior to opening night, creatives and critics alike were sweating translating the successful Hayes show in a 111-seat venue into a powerhouse performance inside the 2700 seat Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. Judging by the fierce energy radiating from the stage all night and returned via a full house standing ovation come show’s end, they need sweat it no more.

Rating:  5 stars ★★★★★

In The Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Production Team
Producer: Damien Bermingham and Joshua Robson (Blue Saint Productions)
Associate Producer: Neil Gooding
Director: Luke Joslin
Choreographer: Amy Campbell
Musical Director: Lucy Bermingham

Usnavi: Stevie Lopez
Vanessa: Olivia Vasquez
Benny: Joe Kalou
Nina: Luisa Scrofani
Sonny: Marty Alix
Abuela Claudia: Margi de Ferranti
Daniela: Monique Montez
Carla: Libby Asciak
KevinL Alexander Palacio
Camilla: Ana Maria Belo
Graffiti Pete: Stephen Tannos
Piragua Guy: Richard Valdez

16 – 20 January 2019
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

Liam McLoughlin
About the Author
Liam McLoughlin is a freelance writer who is keen on satire, activism and the arts. He blogs at Situation Theatre and tweets from@situtheatre.