In the Heights, Theatre summer school at Frome Merlin

IT was some coup when director Claudia Pepler got the rights to perform In the Heights, the first hiphop play by Hamil­ton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, for her Frome summer school.

And then it was quite a challenge to transform a group of Somerset acting teen­agers into convincing Latinos in Washington Heights.

The result was nothing short of a triumph. Packing The Merlin for every performance, this brilliant, vibrant, complex, rhythmic and poignant show is probably the best example of summer school youth theatre I have ever seen.

The extraordinary young cast put on a performance that would do a professional company proud, every one of them from principals to chorus creating a memorably delineated character, immersing themselves in unfamiliar styles of song and dance and making the terrific show their own.

It is set in around the bodega (corner store) run by the strangely named Usnavi, a first generation Dominican-American, helped by his younger cousin Sonny. Usnavi is pining for Vanessa, who is pursued by all the boys, but only wants to get out of the barrio into the world.

Over the road, the Rosario’s are awaiting the return of daughter Nina after her first
year at Stamford University across the States in California.  They employ a non Latino boy, Benny, who is in love with Nina. And next door lives Abuela (granny) Claudia, a woman who has devoted her life to caring for the children in her neighbourhood, especially Usnavi, Sonny and Nina.

The story is about belonging, the dangers of living in an increasingly imaginary past, and about community. It couldn’t come at a more important or relevant time both for the USA and for Britain.

At Frome, choreographer Amy Morgan-Bell and her cast worked little short of a miracle. The nine-piece band, led from the keyboard by MD Joseph Church, captured the excitement and variety of Latin music and Claudia Pepler directed with a careful eye on every aspect of the performances, leaving the wonderful cast to take the well-deserved applause of the audience.

Dillon Berry had the lions’ share of the dialogue as Usnavi, with Jack Brotherton as an endearingly idle Sonny, Kathryn Wright as the anguished Nina, Ollie Lamb and Emma Asprey as her conflicted but devoted parents, Maisie Fogg as Vanessa, Oliver Edwards as Benny and an marvellously aged performance by 14 year old Millie Weare as Abuela Claudia.

I would quickly run out of superlatives to mention all the memorable moments in this production, but I hope it runs off with the Somerset Fellowship of Drama awards for summer school youth theatre. In the Heights would be an impossible act to follow.

Thanks and congratulations to you all


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