‘In the Heights’ takes on the flavors of Miami

 

Actors' Playhouse celebrates its 25th season with a homegrown production of ‘In the Heights.’

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By Christine Dolen | cdolen@MiamiHerald.com

In the Heights, the Tony Award-winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Pulitzer Prize winner Quiara Alegría Hudes, is set in Manhattan but flavored with the sounds and soul of Miami.

The show’s Tony-winning co-orchestrator, Alex Lacamoire, grew up in Miami and went to high school at New World School of the Arts. Many of the show’s original Broadway stars and ensemble members were Miamians — so many that, around Tony time in 2008, Miranda observed, “Miami is our secret weapon.”

On tour, In the Heights played Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center in 2010, and the production closed out its long road journey not quite two years ago at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

But finally, as the highlight of the 25th anniversary season at Actors’ Playhouse, South Florida is getting a homegrown production of In the Heights.

Previewing at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday before its Friday opening at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables, this In the Heights is a blend of Miami talent and actors with experience in the Broadway, Off-Broadway and touring productions.

“We could have cast the whole thing here,” says choreographer Stephanie Klemons, who works with Tony-winning Heights choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and has played multiple roles in the show. “People [here] are talented. They have dance, vocal and acting chops. They come with the soul; they have the ‘it’ factor you can’t create.”

David Arisco, artistic director at Actors’ since its earliest days in a former Kendall movie theater, says In the Heights is the ideal centerpiece for the company’s silver anniversary season.

“I always felt that what this town needs is a show that incorporates English, Spanish and ‘Spanglish,’ tied to good traditional storytelling,” he says. “I love that this is a Fiddler on the Roof for Latinos. It’s about tradition, family, homeland, a new musical that speaks to this community. Within the first half-hour of the show, you learn that you’re watching a diverse group of Hispanics — Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans.”

Similarly, the actor-singer-dancers in the Actors’ cast have far-reaching roots: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela (plus the United States and Israel). The opportunity to perform in a show that flows from and speaks to their heritage is deeply meaningful to them.

“This is the first time my grandmother will come to see me in a show and see herself,” says Henry Gainza, who plays the Puerto Rican piragua (snow cone) seller and is the show’s assistant director.

Nick Duckart, a New World grad, is playing Usnavi, the role originated by Miranda (yes, there’s a story behind the leading character’s name, but it’s funnier in the context of the show). Usnavi is the bodega owner in the bustling Washington Heights neighborhood of northern Manhattan. He narrates, observes, interacts and throws down rhymes. That last part, says Duckart, has been the biggest challenge for him.

“I can’t rap to save my life,” he says, laughing. “So I listened to the cast recording on an endless loop. I figured I’d better learn how.”

The musical styles that flow together to form the In the Heights score include salsa, merengue, bachata, mambo, Reggaeton and old-school musical theater songs. And that’s the sonic mountain that musical director Manny Schvartzman is climbing with the cast.

“I’ve literally never been so challenged in my life, and I’ve done 105 different shows,” he says. “The music is beyond specific, and I don’t want it to be anything less than perfect. ... This is so different from a typical musical theater show.”

Of the 20 people in the cast, Marcus Paul James, Doreen Montalvo, Elise Santora, Alicia Taylor Tomasko, José-Luis Lopez, Rosie Fiedelman and Javier Muñoz have done In the Heights on Broadway; Oscar Cheda, Rebecca Kritzer and Santora have toured in the show; and Duckart, Gainza, Sarah Amengual, Rayner G. Garranchan, Christie Prades, Denise Celina Sanchez, Renata Eastlick, Dexter Carr, Jimmy A. Arguello, Ivore Rousell and Erika Navarro are first-timers.

“When we played Orlando and then closed the tour in Miami, the connection with our people was so right,” says Santora, who played Abuela Claudia on tour and is beauty shop owner Daniela at Actors’. “We can relate to these characters. We see people who look like us, with brown eyes and curly dark hair.”

Says Gainza, “We hope that a lot of people who don’t usually come to the theater will come to this. It speaks to the Latino community in a way that most shows don’t.”

Duckart, who is up for a best supporting actor Carbonell Award for last season’s Next to Normal at Actors’, is happy to be working again in his hometown. His extended family, originally from Argentina, includes people who don’t speak much English, and he’s thrilled to be in a show he’s certain they’ll enjoy — and that is so significant to a company with a rich, award-winning history.

“This is the golden ticket of the 25th anniversary season,” he says.

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