Back at the Barrio

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9:01 am on August 9th 2016, my alarm rudely awakens me with it’s piercing beeps, but for once I am not so bothered by it. Today it’s harsh tones remind me that in a matter of hours I will be back at the King’s Cross Theatre to see In the Heights for the second time.

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My attempt at posing to capture my excitement

The first time I saw In the Heights was on the 4th of July which was electric as the show is set on the 3rd and 4th of July! I went with two of my best friends, and we were all equally as excited to see what it had in store. We went in fairly blind to the show, not knowing a great deal about the story line or characters, only that it was set in Washington Heights and was created by the oh so talented Lin-Manuel Miranda.

As we entered the theatre on platform 2 to take our seats we admired the beautiful stage in the centre of the room. The King’s Cross Theatre is completely different to any other theatre I’ve ever been in to, with two seating ‘platforms’ either side of the narrow stage directly in the middle of the room. The set was so simple yet so effective, and as I was to find out, so creatively used to create a community feel not only within the cast, but with the audience too, with cast members frequently using the aisles as part of the staging.

After the performance had finished, we left the auditorium full of energy and life asking each other when we would next see it? and when after that we would see it again. We then stayed in the bar for a while to see if any of the cast would come out to chat with us, which they did! And they were so lovely, so down to earth, and so enthusiastic. They spoke to us about how much they love the show and how much they love that the audience loves the show, and they were kind enough to take photos and sign everyone’s programmes, passing sharpies from person to person, with choruses of ‘can I borrow your pen?’ ‘Please can you take a photo of us?’ and ‘Can you hold this whilst I get a photo please?’.

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Myself and Cleve September (Sonny)
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Myself and my friends with Christine Allado (Vanessa)

Fast forward to August 9th and I’m back again, however, this time I’m on my own. Not only is this my first time at the theatre on my own, but it’s my first time in London on my own (which was a lot more relaxed than I initially thought). I’m at the matinee as the evening performances finish after the last train home and as I arrive, exhausted from my speedy walk from the tube, my first observation is ‘wow! there are a lot of young kids here’ shortly followed by ‘aaaaah I am SO EXCITED!’. I wait in the queue to get into the auditorium, this time for my seat on platform 1 almost diagonally opposite where I sat a little over a month beforehand.

As I take my seat I see the theatre filling up and after a few minutes the wonderful Johnny Bishop as Graffiti Pete makes his way on stage. It takes a few seconds for the audience to realise that something is happening and to stop their conversations and pay attention, which is something I love about the show. There are no announcements or obvious lighting changes to make the audience aware of the show’s start, it’s down to them to see what’s happening which is how you know they really want to be there. Johnny’s Graffiti Pete is something to be amazed about due to his insane talent and moves, some of which I try to recreate at home resulting in me on a pile on the floor after tripping over my own leg.

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Myself and my two friends, Alice and Georgia, with Sam Mackay (Usnavi)

The next character out is Usnavi, played by the incredibly talented and lovely Sam Mackay. The first song ‘In The Heights’ begins with Usnavi introducing us to the setting of the show and the characters making up the community. At almost 8 minutes long, it’s not a quick song, but like the rest of the show, it holds your attention with so much energy from the cast and the orchestra, and as a result you barely realise you’re still on the first song as you feel as though you are in Washington Heights.

Through the next few songs we are transported further into Nina’s, Benny’s, Usnavi’s, Vanessa’s, and the whole of the Barrio’s world. We see their problems, their relationships, and most importantly how they work with and support each other through their struggles. The enthusiasm from the cast is constant no matter what the song, or the scene. The way they use dance to move and interact with each other gives the whole show a flowing feeling, helping you pay attention to the story line more. There are no awkward set changes, and all the prop movements are seamlessly incorporated within the choreography, once more allowing you to focus on the characters rather than the actors. And when they leave the stage to perform on the stairs by the seats, you really feel part of the action, especially if you’re on the end of a row.

One actor who never ceases to amaze me is the outstanding Gabriela Garcia who played Nina both times I saw the show. She treats the character with such a gentle touch but with added bite when necessary, really putting all of her emotion into it to make the performance that bit more believable. Her stunning acting paired with a voice that will blow your mind is enough to make you laugh, cry, and want to get up and be part of Nina’s world. Not only is she a fantastic Nina, but she’s also so cheerful and friendly after the show. I was lucky enough to meet her after the matinee and she was genuinely happy to see me and thanked me for seeing the show twice, she also spent time with other audience members who were waiting to meet her, despite only having a few hours until the start of the evening show.

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Myself and Gabriela Garcia (Nina)

At the interval I race to the loo to beat the queue that I know will be the length of the bar in a matter of seconds, and get back to settle back down in my seat. In the performance there are two understudies with Josie Benson playing Abuela Claudia instead of her usual Camila, and Jocasta Almgill taking her place as Camila. Whilst Josie was not who I expected to be playing Abuela Claudia, I was not at all disappointed with the performance she put on, really making you feel for Abuela. And seeing Jocasta as Camila was a welcome surprise, as previously I saw her as Daniela. She absolutely kills both characters, I should add.

The second half of the show is a little shorter but filled with just as much passion and power as the first half. As soon as I hear the start of Alabanza, my eyes fill with tears. The emotion from the cast’s performance, along with the staging, and the music is enough to bring anyone to tears. The props are left as they have been placed during Alabanza for the rest of the show, leaving the thought and impact of Abuela Claudia on the audience despite her not being there. The residents, especially Nina and Usnavi, reflect on their memories with their ‘Abuela’ without it being seen as something sad, but instead something happy, laughing and talking about all the little things she would do, say, and notice.

The show ends with Usnavi looking at the neighbourhood now after everything they’ve been through, and how they’re still a tight knit community despite all their difficulties, but also thinking about the future of the neighbourhood and what it might become, be it good or bad. Finally, a mural of Abuela painted by Graffiti Pete is revealed to Usnavi, a piece of art somewhat different to his usual style. (In the second performance with Josie playing Abuela, the mural was different so it looked more like Josie rather than Norma Atallah who usually plays Abuela Claudia, which I thought was lovely attention to detail.) This results in Usnavi realising that this is where he belongs, which, due to Sam’s warmth and joy, leaves you feeling all kinds of emotions, making you feel like you’re home just as Usnavi feels.

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Myself and Sam Mackay (Usnavi) after the matinee

I leave the theatre, as I have before, full of energy, excitement, and joy. I wonder to myself when I’ll next see the show, and who will play which characters then? I head to the stage door and start chatting to some girls who are also waiting to meet the cast. Thank you In The Heights I now have two new friends! After we have met Gabriela, Sam, and Dex Lee (who played Benny wonderfully, taking over the role from Joe Aaron Reid who I saw in July), we head back towards the tube station raving about the performance and how different it was to the first time we saw it (them back in April), yet still how truly awe inspiring it was.

I truly can’t wait until I can make it back to the Barrio so that I can once again be transported into another world with the kindest, most talented cast in the world.

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Myself and Dex Lee (Benny)
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