‘It’s terrifying’: can a scrappy production of In The Heights scale to be bigger than Broadway?

The lack of midsized venues in Australia is presenting challenges for local productions – but the show must go on

In The Heights at the Hayes.
 At the Hayes, the production played to a room with 110 seats. This week it opens in a venue with 2700. Photograph: Grant Leslie

It’s two days after Christmas and Damien Bermingham is anxious. His company, Blue Saint, is set to reprise its production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 musical In The Heights by taking it to one of Australia’s most prestigious stages, the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House.

In its initial 2018 run the musical was a critical and box office success, which sold out before it opened. The Australian take on Miranda’s ebullient precursor to Hamilton – a slice of life set in an immigrant community in New York’s Washington Heights – is consciously diverse and authentically cast, with ambitious choreography by Amy Campbell and thoughtful direction by Luke Joslin.

And at the Hayes – a small theatre in Sydney, where the tiny stage was so crammed with the cast it couldn’t help but evoke an overcrowded neighbourhood – it all worked together: that strange, rare musical theatre alchemy that had punters guessing the production would resurface.

But this is no mere remount. The first season of Blue Saint’s In the Heights took place in a venue you would affectionately call intimate: the Hayes has only 111 seats. The Opera House Concert Hall? 2,700.

That’s a lot of extra space – more than double the size of the show’s original Broadway house, the Richard Rodgers – and with that extra space comes increased expectations.

Libby Asciak and Olivia Vasquez in In The Heights at the Hayes, Sydney
 ‘How can I be in the double-X exit row and feel like I’m sitting on my stoop watching my suburb?’ Photograph: Grant Leslie

“The beauty of the Hayes was to have the audience [feel like they’re] sitting on a stoop and watching the street go by,” Bermingham says. “The challenge with the Opera House Concert Hall is what we’re working on now: how can I be in the double-X exit row and feel like I’m sitting on my stoop watching my suburb?”

Bermingham is speaking to me from rehearsals. Behind him the determined, muffled sounds of a chorus filter down the line: salsa beats from the band, voices rising and falling in song. So far, the plan is to preserve as much of the heart of the show as possible while they “blow it all up times 10” and try to do its spirit justice. On a practical level, that means two more dancers and beefing up the band.

Whether they will pull it off is impossible to know before the brief five-night run opens on Wednesday night, but Bermingham – as curious as any patron to find out – feels they’re in “pretty good nick”.

For independent and boutique shows, success can be a double-edged sword. Home-grown productions packed with fresh ideas and top-tier talent are far from rare, but these shows are often scaled for small houses and small seasons. As any international theatre mogul attempting to penetrate the local market will tell you, Australia’s lack of medium-sized venues in major cities – between 600 and 1,500 seats – is a real problem, particularly outside Melbourne. At larger venues like the Sydney Opera House, scrappy shows can struggle to fill seats; teams used to working lean have to suddenly readjust; and all the while the audience and industry raise their expectations, looking forward to a Broadway-quality hit straight out of the box.

Of course, it works for some. The Book of Mormon, currently playing in Sydney’s Lyric Theatre (2,000 seats), started with a cast of 32, imported creative direction and a design that had been tried and tested on Broadway and didn’t deviate. It also had millions of dollars in investment backing.

The Book of Mormon on Broadway
 The Australian iteration of the Book of Mormon started with scale – and a design that was tried and tested on Broadway. Photograph: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

But Olivia Ansell, head of contemporary performance for Sydney Opera House Presents, the venue’s producing arm, is confident the team can pull off the massive task. She was immediately taken with the Hayes production of In The Heights, from its cast to its new direction and choreography.

“I know it’s crazy, but I thought, ‘I think this show could upscale to the Concert Hall’,” she says.

Joslin freely admits that he’s terrified at the prospect of moving his small but ambitious darling to the grand stage.

Adding to his anxiety, he had to miss the early and critical days of rehearsal. Joslin is also an actor, and is starring in Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Playhouse in the Arts Centre Melbourne (for the record, a great size – 884 seats).

“It’s terrifying for me, and I won’t know if we’ve done it until we hit that venue, which I guess will be far too late. But for us, I have to track it the whole time, keep it truthful. I think that honesty is key.”

Having appeared in the cast of many of those mainstage musical blockbusters over his career, Joslin is sensitive to the reality that sometimes authenticity is sacrificed for spectacle when shows go big.

“We don’t ever want to get it into that presentational world, where you know: ‘It’s a musical, spirit fingers, it’s a MUSICAL!’ It’s still got to feel as though we’re on the block with this community,” he says.

“We don’t want it to become a flat musical, which is hard to do in a cathedral like the Concert Hall. I have reservations, but we’re just trying to get the energy up: energy, energy, think energy, not trying to present something. Just attack those lyrics, and hopefully it’ll translate.”

These questions of scaling up are squarely Joslin’s concern. “[It’s] never really taken into consideration, when you transition into a new venue. The powers that be make those decisions, and it’s like, all right, that’s great. But we have to make it serve this adaptation, make some drastic changes, to make sure it still works.”

Stevie Lopez as Usnavi and Joe Kalou as Benny, two new leads for In the Heights at the Sydney Opera House.
 Stevie Lopez as Usnavi and Joe Kalou as Benny, two new leads for In the Heights at the Sydney Opera House. Photograph: Prudence Upton

And there are more challenges. Since its Hayes run, In The Heights has lost its two charismatic leading men: Ryan Gonzalez, who was nominated for a Sydney theatre award for his turn as Usnavi (the Miranda role) is currently starring as Frankie Valli in the Jersey Boys tour; and Tim “Timomatic” Omaji, who played aspiring entrepreneur Benny (a role originated by Christopher “George Washington in Hamilton” Jackson) is contracted to mainstage tourer Madiba the Musical.

They have been replaced by Stevie Lopez, a vocal dead-ringer for Miranda who has played Usnavi in a popular independent Melbourne production in 2015 (at Chapel Off Chapel: 240 seats); and Joe Kalou – known to thousands of children as a member of Hi-5 – as Benny.

And so, the team keeps working. The weekend before In the Heights starts performances at the Opera House, I take a train to Wyong on the New South Wales central coast. In the Heights is playing an four-performance test run in the Art House, a new touring venue. It’s Kalou’s home town, and the bright, spacious foyer is bubbling with energy. There are men in Hamilton T-shirts, little girls in their best dresses, and several multigenerational family groups – not to mention Sydney-based actors, directors, and other industry types – turning out for the occasion.

In this venue, the audience roars. The larger cast brings fresh dynamism to the show’s already dazzling choreography; the principal cast – especially the women – are in fine voice. In the second act, I see many people around me wipe away tears.

The authenticity Joslin is so concerned about seems to have survived the changes. However, the Art House seats just 500. There’s still a long way to go before opening night.

 In The Heights runs until Sunday 20 January at the Sydney Opera House

(The Guardian)