Venue: Birmingham REP - The Studio

Production Run: Fri 14 - Sat 15 July 2017

Production Reviewed: Fri 14 July (Press Night)

There’s no denying that Lin-Manuel Miranda is decidedly in vogue in theatredom right now.

As the West End positively rattles in excitement for the colossus that is to be Hamilton, eyes cast to Miranda’s other works in anticipation.

For once, the hype is justified. Miranda is not only a deft, versatile and borderline gymnastic lyricist, he is also a true chameleon and innovator, able to tap into both archetype and originality with seamless confidence. His numbers are clever, vibrant and characterful, often infused with unconventional stylings or structure plucked from the edges of rap, opera or beyond. 

But most importantly, he gets musical theatre, making it putty in his hands - knowing just how far he can stretch and mould it to his unique vision before it snaps out of recognition.

A Sondheim for the 21st Century? In his own way, certainly.

For all of the effortless charm and appeal of his works though, the major rub comes in them actually not being all that effortless. Much like Sondheim, the wordsmith’s wit comes at a price, making Miranda’s musicals deceptively difficult to pull off well.

The stall was set, then, for a challenge and a half for ‘BITA’ or the Birmingham Institute of Theatre Arts, a local performing academy that professionally trains 12 - 19 year olds in all things Musical Theatre, who opted to tackle Miranda’s other musical success story In The Heights for their 2017 production.

Heights, which tells the story of a group of inter-connected youngsters and their families living in the Latino ‘Barrio’ of Washington Heights, New York, may not be as immediately well-known as the cultural juggernaut that Hamilton has become, but it is still respected and loved by many in the musical theatre circuit. It recently completed a successful, critically-acclaimed run at the King’s Cross Theatre, London, and has an enviable clutch of Tonys, Grammys and Oliviers to its name, including the 2008 Tony for Best Musical.

It also contains many of the aforementioned Lin-Manuel charms and challenges.

It’s a testimony to the quality of training BITA deliver, then, not to mention the demonstrable talent and ability of many of its students, that the end result more than did justice to its source material.

What immediately popped from the stage was the sheer passion, energy and invention pouring out from every avenue of BITA, and it was this youthful bonhomie and spark that blended beautifully with the core tale and optimism of the show. Heights is no easy ask, certainly not for a group of teens, some of whom are still in the earliest stages of their training/careers, but their infectious spirit and clear love for what they are doing harmonised beautifully with the core tale the show tells; one that champions self-identity, friendship, solidarity, communal love and pride. They are all ideas and sentiments clearly ingrained in the BITA consciousness.

Technically, the odd minor sound flub here and there did nothing to dent the overall enjoyment of this spirited, exciting production. Andrew Exeter’s interpretive set design was fresh, intelligent and original, whilst still offering echoes of the original production’s locale, met with some stunning and evocative lighting that when brought together put the show far beyond expectation visually. When significant chunks of the show are dedicated to a City-wide blackout, clever lighting is essential, and were masterfully handled by Exeter here; indeed, sequences such as the strobing of “The Club” or the optical effects (and even pyrotechnics!) of “Blackout” would not have looked out of place in a professional touring production, they were that impressive.

With such a large cast of a central characters, one could be forgiven for having to write a few performers off in a younger cast, but there were no such slouches here. Amy Evans was understated and disappeared into her role as kindly grandmother ‘Abuela’, delivering a powerful finish to ‘Pacienca y Fe’ in particular. Vicky Addis and Matt Perry, similarly, commanded a physicality and maturity beyond their years as parents Kevin and Camilla, with Perry giving excellent soul-searching in ‘Inútil’ and Addis absolutely commanding the stage with a fiery, implacable ‘Enough’.

Mollie-Mae Hallahan offered great, confident character work as sassy salon owner Daniella, whilst Billy Vale trod masterfully between being both scene-stealingly funny and endearing at once. Amongst a talented wider company, talented supporting players like Dan Shorrock helped ensure that Lindon Barr and Attiye Partridge’s vibrant choreography was exuberant, vigorous and sharp; there was no dialling or dumbing down here, with a notably confident use of space, too.

Whilst singling out too many of the talented troupe seems a little unfair, the real stars of the show nevertheless had to be Jack Christou as lead ‘Usnavi’ and Erin Chalk as ‘Nina’. Christou demonstrated a grasp of character far beyond his age and relative experience; carrying the show on his shoulders with a disarmingly confident turn that bodes very well for the young performer’s future. Whilst he could occasionally be drowned out in the larger or louder numbers, not a beat went by where he wasn’t controlling the stage and clearly giving it his all; and the charismatic, easygoing charm with which he got his tongue around some of Miranda’s more challenging speak-rap-sing was thoroughly impressive. Chalk, meanwhile, seemed readily plucked from the stage, with beautiful, powerful vocals and a clear, natural instinct and talent for musical theatre, she is undoubtedly a talent to watch and be reckoned with.

With future Hamilton star Cleve September associate directing this fluid, energetic show, and the pedigree of the BITA staff on full show, this was a production that channeled into the very essence of Heights in a way even some professional companies would perhaps struggle. BITA principle Chris Passey conducted the on-stage band and delivered a quality of accompaniment and robustness of sound that genuinely surpassed many touring productions I’ve reviewed; and of course he inherits the ongoing kudos for the erratic challenge Miranda’s numbers can present. 

Were it to have been a simple, calculated proof of concept for an exciting, promising new Midlands-based theatre academy, BITA’s In The Heights would still have undoubtedly been a success. Were it to be a gauntlet laid down by staff and students alike to take on a challenging yet characterful and vibrant piece of musical theatre, BITA’s In The Heights would still, too, have been a success. The reality, though, is that they inherited the passion, fire, youth and Latino spirit of Miranda’s original, witty, beloved show and fused it with their own. The result was an electric few hours in the theatre that not only showcased the talented involved on-stage and off at BITA, but also quite possibly introduced a lucky few audiences to the musical theatre talent of tomorrow.

For more information on BITA, head on over to their Official Site by clicking here.

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