In The Heights
By Richard Schultz, September 2016 Issue.
With In The Heights as its 2016-2017 season opened, Phoenix Theatre has proven once again that it’s mastered the art of timing.
According to associate artistic director Robert Kolby Harper, Phoenix Theatre had the rights to do this show for a while, but it just never was the right season for it. This year, he explained, brought about the “we-must-do-this-now” moment.
“[W]ith so much strife ricocheting around the media, we need stories of community,” Harper said. “It doesn’t matter what the nationality or political affiliation [is], we all want the same things: love, a sense of security, a dream to follow and people who hold our hand when we stumble.”
Harper believes the power of this musical, which will run Sept. 7-Oct. 2, lies in its timeless elements.
“We need art that creates compassion and understanding and highlights our similarities and honors the differences,” he said. “ It’s the similarities that bond us and the differences that keep things interesting. I don’t believe that you should be scared of those things. It’s all very beautiful and important in each community. All the colors. All the love. That’s makes for the good stuff.”
Winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical, In the Heights features music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway blockbuster Hamilton.
The musical is a joyful story centered on three days in the life of Washington Heights, a tightknit community at the northern tip of Manhattan.
At the center of the show is Usnavi, a bodega owner who looks after the aging Cuban lady next door, pines for the gorgeous girl working in the neighboring beauty salon and dreams of winning the lottery and escaping to the shores of his native Dominican Republic.
Meanwhile, Nina, a childhood friend of Usnavi’s, has returned to the neighborhood from her first year at college with surprising news for her parents, who have spent their life savings on building a better life for their daughter. Ultimately, Usnavi and the residents of the close-knit neighborhood get a dose of what it means to be home.
For this production, Phoenix Theatre secured the national touring set, which Harper feels will instantly transport the audience to the street in Washington Heights as they enter the theatre. Still, it is the show’s theme that he believes will offer the greatest impact.
“This musical is, at its core, a show about home, family and community,” he said. “It addresses themes of striking out on your own and following your dreams. The journey is always exciting, but it’s the people who believe in you and love you that give you the courage and strength to keep going. I believe that the greatest thing we can choose to do is become an active member of the community we live in.”
Additionally, Harper said, the diverse score is one of the show’s strengths.
“Lin-Manuel Miranda’s arrangements are amazing,” Harper said. “Each character is captured by a slightly different type of music … Usnavi raps most of his music, the roles of Abuela Claudia, the grandmother character, and The Piragua Guy, who pushed a cart and sells snow cones, have more a traditional Latin feel. When you bring them together, you get a story.”
According to Harper, casting a large ensemble show was a challenge and audiences will see a lot of new faces this time – some are from New York even.
“Casting was difficult because of the demands of this show. It is a marathon,” Harper said. “The music, dancing and acting are all challenging because it’s so real and raw. The cast is mostly always onstage doing something. If they are not specially in a scene or number, they are often creating the ambient life.”
Because this musical is set on street corner, Harper explained that a power ballad might be taking place downstage right, but life is still happening up and down this busy street.
“That is part of this show’s brilliance,” he added. “How many times have you been in public struggling with a very personal dilemma as the world is still bustling around you?”
Another key factor in capturing the energy and spirit of this celebrated musical is choreography. Although he’s worked more in the world of concert dance, Harper explained that he wanted Nick Flores as the show’s choreographer because of his background and tremendous understanding of musical theater.
“The choreography is essential to this storytelling,” Harper said. “It captures the celebration and cultural pride and reflects the emotional circumstances of the characters. It is their passion, their release.”