Theatre Review: In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda

In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Starring: a brilliantly diverse cast

Theatre: King’s Cross Theatre, London

Dates: Current; extended to January 2017

Rating: ♄ ♄ ♄ ♄ ♄

My only coherent thought after I’d watched In the Heights was “If ITH was this good, then oh my god are we in for a treat with Hamilton!” Buuut let’s rewind back to the beginning…

I’d been meaning to go and see In the Heights since it transferred to the West End in October 2015 so I jumped at the chance when I saw an opportunity to get some awesome seats at a ridiculously discounted price. Also, for all the hype Hamilton has rightly been getting, I actually knew very little about In the Heights before I went to see it beyond the perfunctory “It’s a Lin-Manuel Miranda production” (which let’s be honest is enough for most of us!) I didn’t even know that it had been nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won four – including Best Musical!

A quick summary of the story: Into the Heights: At the crack of dawn on the hottest day of summer, Usnavi opens up his tiny bodega in his neighbourhood of Washington Heights – one bustling neighbourhood where everyone knows everybody, and the breeze carries the sweet sounds of three generations of music.. Usnavi dreams of a return to his native Dominican Republic. His childhood friend, Nina, has just come from her first year at Stanford with some surprising news for her parents, and, priced out of the ‘hood’, salon owner Daniela is packing up her sass and taking it to the Bronx. But when Usnavi discovers he has sold a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000, everyone on the block gets a dose of what it means to be home.

Into the Heights deals with issues such as gentrification, family, immigrant realities, and love. But although that may sound heavy, Lin-Manuel explores it in a really poignant way that focuses on the positives. I could really relate to all of the characters on some level and I think that’ll be the case for most people. LMM is so adept at telling stories that although on the face of it his productions might seem targeted at one specific audience (Hamilton – history nerds, older gen; ITH – trendy, hipster young ‘uns) actually once you’re immersed you realise they’re cross-generational, cross-racial etc. etc. and I think that’s why his productions and songs resonate so much with so many.

ITH is a multi-character and plotline story. I honestly cannot choose a favourite character because they’re all so brilliant in their own way: Usnavi, the beleaguered shop owner deep in unrequited love; Sonny, the smooth-talking cheeky chappie, Abuela Claudia, with her simple pleasures; Nina, trying to reconcile her background with her future; Benny, who’s just trying to get by in the world and get the girl; Vanessa, the girl who seems to have all the attention but is having trouble branching out on her own, the Rosario’s, scraping by to make their daughter Nina’s future easier that they’ve had it; Daniela, the sassy salon-owner and victim of gentrification. Hell even the Piragua Guy (steet food seller) had a story and his own solo!

It sounds rather chaotic but the characters all had distinct personalities, stories and even singing styles and it was easy to follow. I loved how colourful each character was, that they all got their own solos and had backstories. But most of all it was amazing to go and see a theatre show which had the most diverse cast ever – every single actor *was* their character and it just made the whole experience so much more expressive and immersive. Their stories are told very well and it was all interwoven without being messy – it really shows how our experiences are often bigger than us and how “family” and “home” can mean so many things. I adored each and every plotline and loved how it all came together at the end.

Obviously, I can’t review a LMM production without mentioning the songs – I can confirm they were brilliant, as expected. The lyrics were just phenomenal, I am seriously in awe of Mr Miranda because honestly it’s difficult enough to rhyme words but to make weave words together into a much bigger and meaningful story is just ~wow~. There was a good balance of uplifting and upbeat ensemble songs as well as the more serious ballads and the range of styles, from freestyle rapping to duets, were fantastic. The choreography was equally diverse with everything from salsa to swing. I really recommend the In the Heights soundtrack. And on that note, the Hamilton mixtape is now available to pre-order with two songs already released. 🙂

If you’re desperately waiting for Hamilton, I really recommend going to watch In the Heights to whet your appetite until November 2017. It’s a classic Lin-Manuel Miranda production with amazing songs, diverse actors all wrapped up in a great story that’s guaranteed to leave you feeling fuzzy and warm! The production has been extended three times already due to phenomenal demand but is due to end on 7 January so be quick! Or maybe you’ve seen In the Heights already or even Hamilton (colour me green with envy)? Tell me what you thought in the comments below!

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Theatre Review: Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor 

Starring: Cecil Baldwin

Theatre: London Palladium

Dates: Saturday 22 October 2016

Rating: ♄ ♄ ♄ ♄ ♄

I’ve been listening to Welcome to Night Vale for a long time now and it was my first and remains one of my favourite podcasts to listen to. For those that aren’t familiar with Night Vale, a quick synopsis: the podcast is in the style of a community radio broadcast for the desert town of Night Vale. The host of the radio show is Cecil Gershwin Palmer who shares news, announcements and advertisements as well as the strange things that happen in the small town – you get the whole gamut from weather (actually music) to the dark hooded figures in the dog park who you must not approach under any circumstance… 

As it’s probably clear from the above summary, this isn’t your run of the mill podcast nor you usual community radio show, no sireee. Welcome to Night Vale has the best damn deadpan humour and a taste for all things paranormal and just, well, downright odd. I think the humour is quite specific and know the show isn’t for everyone but it’s always one that I find myself returning to. I’ve dipped in and out of it over the years and that’s the beauty of Night Vale – you can come back to it without feeling totally out of the loop because each episode is standalone. I also find it’s not as demanding as some other podcasts (like my true crime casts which require all of my attention *side eyes Serial*); when I relisten to episodes I tend to just have it on in the background. 

I’ve never been to a performance where it’s pretty much spoken word – there’s no heavy acting in Welcome to Night Vale. It has a ghost stories theme which was fitting what with it so close to Halloween! The show was similar to the podcast experience, with Cecil delivering brilliant news, except this time he was right in front of you and you really get to experience the gestures and facial expressions which was really cool and just enchanced his already fantastic narration. There were nods to recognisable segments like the Weather (featuring the wonderful Eliza Rickman), Horoscopes and Community Calendar and also featured some of the brilliant recurring characters such as the Sheriff. All the great in jokes are there but even though the show generally stayed true to the podcast, there’s definitely enough new material for it to feel fresh and exciting.

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I think the best thing about going to watch Welcome to Night Vale was seeing a 2000+ crowd all eager to see the show. The fan following of Night Vale is really what has kept the podcast going from strength to strength over the years and there’s something really special about fans getting together to experience something like this – whether it’s die hard fans who have been with the podcast from the very beginning and were in their cosplaying element or the newbie brought along by their other half. The excitement and humour in the show is infectious and the performance by the actors so gripping. I thoroughly enjoyed Welcome to Night Vale and may have bought some merchandise as souvenirs – really great that a lot of it was exclusive to the tour!

Unfortunately, the tour only had a couple of UK dates but I highly recommend you get tickets the next time they’re in town if you’re a fan. And if not, get listening! The show is definitely worth a go – new episodes are released fortnightly and you can find more info about the show here. I’ll finish by signing off in the only way appropriate: ALL HAIL THE GLOW CLOUD.

Are you a fan of Night Vale? Do you have a favourite segment/character? Or maybe you swear by another podcast? Recs always welcome – seriously, huge podcast fan over here. 🙂

Bookish Event: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (No Spoilers!)

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I was very lucky to have a friend buy tickets for herself and me to go and watch Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. These tickets were booked a year in advance and so it’s weird to think I’ve now seen it and the whole experience is over *sad face* As promised in the title, there will be no spoilers in this post about the play itself, I won’t even mention the plot, characters or post photos which give away anything to do with it. Instead, I wanted to blog about the experience and share a couple of photos of the things I bought (so there are photos of souvenirs, also viewable online in the shop, but fair warning if you don’t want to see that stuff either!) 

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Somehow, through a big dose of sheer luck (and a lot of avoidance of Tumblr and Twitter), I wasn’t spoiled at all with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Going into it, I knew very little besides the strapline, that it was set 19 years later and was about the next generation. I’d also glanced at the casting when it was announced but had mostly forgotten even that. I went to the launch of the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child screenplay (round up of the event here) and managed to be really disciplined about not flicking through the book or even reading the blurb (fangirl self-discipline ftw!) 

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The whole experience was beyond anything I could’ve imagined! I was gripping my poor friend’s hand the entire time and she mine and there were tears – won’t say if good or bad  😉 Before Part II my friend C and I met up with another Potterhead friend A, who was lucky enough to see it during the first few days of general release and we discussed our predictions for the second part. Suffice to say I was not at all prepared for the finale! During the intermission on the second night, I went a little overboard on the souvenir buying and my haul multiplied from the modest programme and magnet to the above. I ended up buying: a photo book of the making of the play, a programme, a tote bag, a t-shirt, a pencil, a postcard and magnet *sheepish*

I’m already trying to plan my next trip. I love the idea of experiencing something Harry Potter related for the first time – haven’t been many opportunities for this since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published and so a play in the HP canon was beyond my, and I imagine many fans’, wildest dreams. I can’t wait for more people to watch the play so the fandom can start having discussions about the play and plot but until then I will most definitely be #keepingthesecret  🙂

Theatre Review: Nell Gwynn

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Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale

Starring: Gemma Arterton

Theatre: Apollo West End, London

Dates: 4 February – 30 April

Rating: ♄ ♄ ♄ ♄

I’m a massive theatre fan and try to catch many of the West End shows when possible. I’ve managed to watch most of the classics including Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Wicked (in NYC no less!) and many more. Similar to YA fiction, it is one of my indulgences and something I’m quite passionate about so I’m going to try and feature more of my visits on this blog as a nice way to intersperse the book reviews.

I was lucky enough to get tickets to previews of Nell Gwynn earlier this month. The play, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and directed by Jessica Swale, has transferred from Shakespeare’s Globe to the West End for a limited season of 12 weeks with Gemma Arterton taking over the helm from Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

Nell Gwynn is based on Shakespeare’s play of the same name, and is about the true-life story of orange-seller and prostitute turned actress and King’s mistress. In the play, Nell is discovered by actor Charles Hart who introduces her to the King’s Company, a theatre group, and with whom she undergoes training to become a leading female actress. Charles II is in attendance during one of her performances and upon seeing Nell he becomes besotted. As she begins a relationship with the King, she is forced by his chief minister to choose between Charles and her successful career on stage and her decision has far reaching consequences for both the King’s Company and her family.

I was quite excited about the play as it stars Gemma Arterton in the titular role and after seeing Arterton excel in feisty roles in movies including Quantum of Solace, Tamara Drewe and St. Trinian’s, I was interested to see how she would play the ultimate historical anti-heroine Nell Gwynn. Needless to say, Arterton delivers this character really well and does justice to Gwynn’s playful, impetuous attitude as well as showing the caring and ambitious girl underneath the persona. Gemma Arterton’s natural cheeky demeanour meant that you almost forgot she was playing a character. The play had a few upbeat and catchy song and dance numbers (some of which I still find myself humming three weeks on!) and Arterton seemed like a natural performing on stage.

The supporting cast were also fantastic but my favourite had to be Nancy, the theatre tailor and Nell’s dresser – she easily had some of the best lines and quips along with the overenthusiastic and over-dramatic Kynaston who believed he could play a female part better than a woman. Watching the romance develop between Nell and the usually confident and unflappable Charles II, who became flustered in her presence, was charming – it remained true to the fact that whilst Nell was Charles II’s mistress, there was a genuine and life-long affection between the two figures.

The play is set during Restoration England when Charles II was on the throne and the country enjoyed a resurgent cultural scene following the demise of Thomas Cromwell and his staid regime. As such, the play features colourful characters, vivacious outfits and bawdy humour. As Gwynn started out life as a prostitute and then went on to be the King’s mistress, the humour was incredibly funny with risquĂ© jokes and double entrendres abounding that had the audience in hysterics. The costumes and set design weren’t elaborate – since approximately half of the play is set in a theatre, there wasn’t much needed to physically alter the stage. The production instead kept the cast centre stage and didn’t let detailed sets detract from the drama. Gemma Arterton’s costumes were fabulous, her transformation from a poor prostitute to the King’s mistress is beautifully reflected in her outfits.

Despite the progressive art and cultural scene, the play is set against the backdrop of the introduction of the first stage actresses – a really radical notion at the time. The play has an overt and powerful feminist theme which is handled deftly by Jessica Swale. Arterton’s playful interpretation of the character meant it didn’t feel heavy handed but the audience still left with the message clear, that despite her humble beginnings, in a male-dominated world, Gwynn made herself a force to be reckoned with and was  able to make difficult but independent decisions for herself and her own happiness.

If you’re up for a laugh along and some catchy song and dance numbers all wrapped up in a powerful feminist message, I would urge you to go and watch Nell Gwynn during its limited season run – there’s a reason why it transferred to the West End… 🙂