Review: In The Heights at Liverpool Empire ****
Long before he penned hip hop phenomenon Hamilton, a teenage Lin-Manuel Miranda conceived In The Heights – a musical set in the Latino community of Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan.
Like its more famous Miranda stablemate, the show, which itself went on to win multiple Tony Awards when it finally made its way to Broadway, is infused with a broad range of musical styles, driven by hip hop, freestyle rap – and some hot salsa to boot.
It also concerns itself with family, and a community on the cusp of change - a diverse collection of people who have settled in this promised land and all share an ambition to improve their lot.
For musicals fans it’s a fascinating look at how Miranda developed his creative style.
And it’s also simply a great evening of entertainment, particularly in the hands of the incredibly talented young performers from the Liverpool Empire Youth Theatre who are premiering In The Heights in the city.
They bring youthful energy to a piece that certainly requires plenty of it, along with the confidence to master the sinuous and complicated syncopated musical storytelling that Hamilton fans will instantly recognise.
The big ensemble numbers, including 96,000, Carnaval de Barrio and The Club, are given extra power by the sheer numbers at director Natalie Flynn’s disposal – a cast of 45 that Broadway producers could only dream of, as well as the company’s harmoniously punchy vocal delivery.
Jamil Abassi as Usnavi in In The Heights. Photos by Phil Tragen
In addition, there are a series of impressive solo performances, not least from Jamil Abassi who is grand master of the rap as the show’s narrator Usnavi, Ellie Norton as Nina, Will Callan (Benny), Bethany Rose Lythgoe (Vanessa), and Esme Bowdler as the feisty salon owner, and leader of the pack, Daniela.
Some of these young triple threats are about to head off to prestigious UK arts colleges. Catch them now - or wait until you see them back at the Empire in big touring shows in five years’ time.
The action unfolds on a basic but functional set which features a single street populated by independent small businesses – the taxi company, general store, beauty salon – built up by the immigrant population but now under threat from rising rents and predatory real estate companies, with the George Washington Bridge looming in the background.