Llio, Nathan and I have just been to see In The Heights at The Southwark Playhouse, and in the process proved, if proof were needed, that all the exciting things in musical theatre these days are happening underneath the radar.
As we sat waiting for the show to begin I tuned into a conversation somewhere behind me where a woman was whinging about the fact that no one gets paid properly to do fringe musicals. Her suggestion was for writers to write shows for just five performers and I almost swung around to say, "no one wants to see a musical with a tiny cast. Musicals are there to transport us to another world. Name me a smash hit musical written for a cast of five!" But instead I just decided to enjoy the show.
Nathan and I saw In The Heights on Broadway about six years ago, and were so excited by its energy and drive that we made a special trip up to Washington Heights to take a look at the curious Spanish-speaking world where it's set.
In the Heights is a non-stop fusion of rap and Latin music and tells the story of a group of people living in Manhattan's most colourful district. Think Rent with Salsa dancing. It is, without doubt, one of the most luminous and engulfing works of musical theatre ever written and I was lucky enough to meet its writer at the opening night of Shrek on Broadway.
The production at Southwark is probably more of a powerful experience than the Broadway version because of its intimate setting. Performed in the three-quarters round, no audience member is less than about five feet from an actor. I was on the front row, so at times felt as though I needed to move my feet to avoid one of the cast tripping over my shoes.
The choreography is definitely one of the stars of this particular production, which is a great relief because it was done by the fabulous Drew McOnie, who also choreographed our wedding. There were remarkable performances from Sam MacKay, who portrayed Usnavy with as much coolness as charm and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt who knows her Latina schtick, and played the crowd like a set of star-struck bongos. Throw into the mix a brilliant band, a wonderful cameo performance from David Bedella and you have a deeply entertaining, joy-filled, toe-thumping evening. I nodded my head like a two-bit bass player throughout the night.
The question, of course, becomes will it - or maybe COULD it - transfer to the West End? It certainly ought to, but this show is aimed at two communities; young, cool people and the Hispanic community, neither of which are renowned for their presence in British musical theatre audiences. In fact, I'd be a little surprised to discover there even IS a Hispanic sub-culture in London.
I'm convinced, however, that it's initial run at Southwark will sell out within seconds of the first reviews being posted, so if you want my advice, pick up the phone, and book yourself in for a treat! Musicals of this quality don't roll round too often.