By BRUCE DENNILL
In The Heights / Directed by Danielle Bentel & Stefania Du Toit / Hyde Park High School, Johannesburg
Many school productions are chosen with at least one eye on the complexity of the piece being performed and the capacity of young learners at the beginning of the process of unpacking the script. With In The Heights, producer and director Danielle Bentel ignored the formula and chose a musical that not only received its African premiere in this iteration, but is also the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the playwright, musician and lyricist behind Hamilton, whose rapid-fire rap storytelling is incredibly effective and entertaining, but tricky to master – particularly when there are snippets of Spanish thrown in throughout the production.
Add to these challenges the difficulty of staging such a show in a school hall, with a live band (who were superb, incidentally). A professional lighting rig and sound set-up were used, but the dynamics of the room, with the baseline volume levels naturally set by the acoustic drum kit and horn section in the band, mean that monitoring was always a challenge for the singers.
Such was the hugely ambitious platform on which a cast of scholars – not trained drama students, but simply raw, talented teenagers – were expected to tell the story of a community of friends and family, mostly from the Dominican Republic, in New York City’s Washington Heights, over the course of a few days in which a number of events occur that could turn the neighbourhood upside down.
There was a core cast of around a dozen characters plus a good-sized ensemble, with everyone involved having to work hard to deliver on Stefania Du Toit’s energetic choreography, and the leads having an enormous amount of material to memorise and present to the audience. A number of these young actors – already triple threats – deserve special mentions for their work (particularly considering the aforementioned sound issues).
Rebecca Ila as Abuela Claudia, the community’s gentle matriarch, convincingly added 60-odd years to her age. Boikie Ledwaba as Priaguero, an ice-cream seller, modestly showed off the best male singing voice in the cast. Cloe Smith, as the mother of Nina Rosario, a student at Stanford and the great hope for her family, sang the night’s top solo, in which she both castigated and supported her family. And Tostsang Molelekoa, as Nina, effectively modelled the angst of a high-potential student put under huge pressure by family and friends while wanting to be ‘normal’ – and also sang beautifully.
S’busisiwe Mahlangu, as Venessa, who’s relationship with Usnavi, the shopkeeper at the centre of the story, took the opportunity to show off a phenomenal voice, an instrument good enough to put her into consideration for roles at the highest level. But it is Linda Dube as Usnavi (the genesis of that name is possibly the script’s best gag) who shines brightest, disarmingly natural as the character around whom nearly all of the action pivots. He has excellent flow as a rapper, moves well, and seems incapable of looking nervous – except when his character has to express his affection for Venessa, which is the one situation in which his suavity dissolves.
For audiences who have not yet been introduced to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s industry-changing influence and the new breed of musicals in which he has been involved, In The Heights is a refreshing, exhilarating taster. The title track, Inutil (Useless), 96 000, Carnaval del Barrio, and the Finale are all highlights, but every song works well, supporting each major thread. It’s easy to understand how the musical won a fistful of Tony Awards.
Debuting a new work with an untested cast – Bentel showed a great deal of courage and faith in bringing this piece to the South African stage, and should be commended for that. What’s more, though sporadic sound and pitch issues proved distracting, the risk paid off: a local following for this exuberant story is likely to grow from this foundation, and the learners involved will have benefited immensely from their exposure to professional theatre practitioners and musicians and will have the werewithal to make more informed decisions regarding the possibility of becoming more involved in the arts going forward.