After four extraordinary successes, everyone now takes notice when Southwark Playhouse puts on an American musical. This is a Tony award winner from five years ago, set in the largely Hispanic district of New York City, Washington Heights, and amongst first and second generation immigrants from Puerto Rico – the young and the not so young, cab company and coffee stand owners, an ice cream seller, a hairdresser, a promising student, etc. We follow them through life’s trials and tribulations – financial hardship, a lottery win, courtship, celebration, death and a power cut. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tuneful score owes little to traditional Broadway and a lot to Latino artists such as Gloria Estefan, thereby making the songs refreshingly different and perfect for the exhilarating and colourful dance routines which crop up at regular intervals throughout the show. Directed by Luke Sheppard and choreographed by Drew McOnie, the mostly young company throw themselves across every inch of the small stage with energy and vigour; if the pace ever lets up, they have the simple answer – bring on the dancers. Miranda’s lyrics work well with Quiara Alegria Hodes’ book, both being lively and witty, but the only real problem lies with the narrative, which is too scattered and riddled with cliches; the stories manage to hold our interest for the first half, but fall away badly after the interval, leaving only the characters and the songs to drive a show which ends in slight disappointment that it did not turn out to be quite as good as it had promised. There are some terrific performances, most notably from Sam Mackay as the constantly rapping Usnavi (named after the ship that brought him to America) and seasoned players such as David Bedella and Eve Polycarpou are on hand to preside over the youngsters. However, in general, the script does not allow the performances to be developed into more than delightful cameos. As with other musicals staged by Southwark Playhouse, here and at its previous location, the big thrill is being able to sit in such close proximity to the performers for a flat-out song and dance production. This show is far from faultless, but it provides entertainment of a pretty high order.
Performance date: 15 May 2014