Wednesday, July 22, 2015

In the Heights - meet cast member Andres Alejandro Ponce

There are so many things to talk about and discuss when it comes to In the Heights. I could sit here and type for two hours, so I'll try ad focus on my experience as Usnavi with the community. Usnavi grew up learning and adapting to many cultures. His whole journey is about finding out where and what home is. While he tries to figure that out he also has to make sure he is making progress in his life. That is a path I am all too familiar with. I have many homes: Home is with my Mama and siblings, home is down at JMU with all of my best friends, and more recently I have found a home at LTA. My definition of home is a place where you can be yourself and be surrounded by people you love. That's exactly what Usnavi is looking for (not knowing he's had it all along). Usnavi also struggles with many financial issues because he does not come from a family of wealth, education, or experience in America. Everything he knows he's learned from those around him and his other influence: Hip-Hop. For many Latin Americans it is hard to succeed because historically we are not as educated and supported as a culture. Although we have come a long way, many Latin American families cannot get out of that rut. Usnavi is all about moving forward and using the resources he has to make better opportunities for himself and the ones he loves. That is a very personal journey that I completely understand. I am a first generation Latin American, so many of the things I have learned and experienced are things that my parents never were able to experience when they were my age. They put their blood, sweat, and tears into making sure that my siblings and I have the same opportunities that any other American could have.

Usnavi is an amazing and by far the most fun character I have ever played. His positive attitude, his love for his friends and family, determination for progress, and his adorkable demeanor makes him (in my opinion) one of the most adored characters in musical theatre. He shows love and kindness to almost everyone he meets. He takes care of his beloved Abuela, and will do anything to make sure she is comfortable and safe. He fights to make sure his younger cousin isn't involved in some of the bad influences that surround Washington Heights. He is kind and respectful to women, but is also easily swayed by the beautiful women. Playing Usnavi has allowed me to realize the similarities and differences I have with the character. He's allowed me to understand what it means to work hard and fight for what you believe in and never give up. He has a dream that always motivates his actions. I like to think I do as well, but the drive it gives Usnavi is something that I hope one day I can have.

I hope audiences will take a few things away from this magnificent show. Representing Latin American culture has never been a priority to Broadway. This show does a glorious job of accurately representing our culture along with the fun and beauty of it. In a world where people are still discriminated by race, gender, sexual preference, and identity, In The Heights shows all audience members that no matter who you are, where you're from, or who you love, you can still belong. In The Heights has been an amazing experience, because most shows are nothing like it. There aren't many popular shows that have such a rich cultural composition. Lin-Manuel Miranda was able to write in Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, Hip-Hop, R&B, and many other styles of music in this show. It opens the door to audiences who usually may not come to musical. Another difference that isn't too common is real sense of community. This is truly an ensemble show that truly succeeds when all of the cast is one whole and not a bunch of individuals.

I was born a performer – ask my parents! I would always love singing, dancing, and performing for anyone who would watch. I grew up to be a soccer player, but I couldn't escape my love for performing. My first role was in Oklahoma as Judd Fry in 8th grade, and from there on I looked for different ways to perform and different skills to hone. My journey lead me to audition for James Madison University's Musical Theatre Program which I am now a proud member of. My wonderful advisor Kate Arecchi has been the best guide I can ask for. She even turned me to LTA to audition for In The Heights. She has been a great mentor, teacher, counselor, director, and friend. If I were to give anyone advice to anyone interesting in working in theatre it would be this: Know yourself. Know who you are, what you stand for, what you believe in, where your home is, who you love, and where your home is. As long as you know that no one's opinion of you should ever affect you. If I've learned anything in the short time I've been in this game it is that the only opinions that matter are the ones who are going help you grow. Don't let anyone tell you what you can or can't be because they don't know you like you know you. Just a year ago, someone told me I wouldn't be old enough to play Usnavi for another 5 years. I guess the jokes on them. Thanks for reading I hope you enjoy the show. Alabanza!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

In the Heights - meet assistant to the music director Julio Diaz

Meet Julio Diaz, Assistant to Music Director/Spanish Diction Coach/Keyboard 2 Player for LTA's In the Heights.

In the Heights is the first musical that I was able to identify with since I came to the U.S. in 2001.  I came from Peru where I was never exposed to musical theatre.  I was able to learn about theatre at my time at George Mason University's School of Music and under the tutelage of my great friend Chris Tomasino, music director for In the Heights.  It was so special for me to find a musical that uses familiar music genres that I grew up listening to in Peru.  The characters and the story were also familiar to me.  As a Latino man, I've been so used to the struggle of coming to the U.S. not knowing how to speak English, having to work two jobs while going to school, and being the first in my family to go to college.  These characters depict the stories of many Latinos in the U.S.  I've seen some other musicals in which Latinos are portrayed as a caricature, full of stereotypes.  However, In the Heights depicts real people and their struggle trying to navigate this world and finding a place to call home.

The music is amazingly clever.  I never thought one could use hip hop to advance a plot in a musical.  It is very similar to classical opera using recitative to advance the plot.  They are both techniques of spoken rhythm and it's an art that's getting accepted more in musical theatre tradition.  The earliest musical I've seen with something similar to this was Music Man with Dr. Harold Hill and it's rhythmic melodic speeches.  In the Heights also introduces new music genres such as Bachata, from the Dominican Republic, and Salsa, which originated in New York City by Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants.  It's so refreshing to find a musical that will use Latino music to depict the correct environment where the story takes place rather than to identify that a character is Latino.  For me, In the Heights is the most sincere representation of the Latino community and it offers an opportunity to add a group of talented Latino actors and musicians to our area.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

In the Heights - meet music director Chris Tomasino

How did you first hear about the show?
I first heard about In the Heights while watching the 2008 Tony Awards.  The awards show presented an abbreviated version of the opening number and 96,000.  My initial reaction was not positive.  I could not understand what the show was about, plus it was in rap and hip hop - what?!  I was speaking about the show with my friend, Julio Diaz and he was so excited about the show.  He told me I would really like it and encouraged me to purchase the cast recording and listen to it.  I did and months later while working on a project at work, I decided to listen to the recording.  I was half listening to the show when I got to the middle of the second act and was totally surprised by an event.  I finished listening to the show and decided when I got home that evening, I would read the synopsis of the show while listening again.  When I finished the show the second time, I was in tears.  I admit I wear my heart on my sleeve, but I was very moved by its story and message.  Shortly thereafter, I saw the show in New York City with most of the original cast.  I laughed, tapped my toes, danced in my seat, and cried.

What is the sound of the show?
The show is presented through the sounds of today - rap, hip hop, and by the use of Latin rhythms.  However, this show remains true to the sound of Broadway by also using traditional ballads to help learn about the backgrounds and desires of the characters.  It is the unique blend of these sounds creating a show for both the traditional musical theatre audience, as well as a newer audience.  Audience members old and young will find something to enjoy in the score.  Whether it is the opening rap by Usnavi helping to start the forthcoming journey, the painful recounting by Kevin of his hopes and dreams in the ballad Inutil, the hopes and dreams of winning the lottery by the community in the hip hop 96,000, or the sounds from Cuba in the telling of Abuela Claudia's immigration in Paciencia Y Fe.  This show has a sound for everyone.

What is the show's message?
I think the show's message of finding home and community is one that is universal.  We all try to find a place where we belong and can call home.  For me, I have many communities - music, theatre, and banking.  However, I can honestly state theatre is my home.  It is where I find love, laughter, inspiration, frustration, tears, knowledge, and friendship, just to name some.  I also find LTA to be my home.  I can honestly say, outside of my family, I have never had a home quite like LTA.  I hope the audiences at LTA are inspired by the rap lyrics, the hip hop feel, the Latin rhythms, and can use the show as a springboard in their lives to find their community and what home means to them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

In the Heights - meet cast member Michael Gale

When I turned in to the 62nd Tony Awards broadcast in June 2008, I hadn't heard of In the Heights.  I was living in Austin, Texas, and had just finished my master's degree in Latin American studies.  In the Heights was nominated for 13 awards, including best musical (which it won), so the cast preformed a medley of the opening number ("In the Heights") and "96,000".  I went insane.  It was so powerful, so energetic, so different, and just so good.  Later that night I found a recording of the performance was already up on youtube so I made my three roommates watch it again.  The next day I bought the cast recording on iTunes and it basically played nonstop for the next 6 months.

For me, this was the right musical at the right time.  For my master's thesis, completed just weeks before, I had written about migration and urbanization in Latin America.  I had spent the previous summer interviewing rural migrants in Peru - speakers of a different language, from a different culture, trying to make their way in a new city.  For the past two years, I worked for an Austin-based nonprofit that helped Latino immigrants prepare for immigration proceedings.  My classmates in the Latin American studies program at the University of Texas were from all over Latin America - Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Chile - and after a long week of classes and research, you could usually find us all dancing salsa or bachata in someone's backyard or living room.  My dad used to joke that I was in Texas getting a master's degree in salsa dancing - which wasn't too far from the truth.

In the Heights wasn't telling my story - but it was telling the story of the friends, clients, and classmates I had spent the previous two years getting to know.  Salsa, reggaeton, merengue, son cubano - suddenly musical styles I had only heard coming from my friends ipods or in South American discotecas were being performed on broadway.

In the Heights was an important musical for me in 2008 and it has continued to resonate with me as I've traveled and work in Latin America.  I'm so honored to help bring it to life at LTA this summer.

In the Heights - meet cast member Janice Rivera

Being a part of In the Heights illuminates the differences that Hispanic people encounter depending not only on where they reside when they come to the US but also how their families decide to acclimate. During the 1950’s when my father came from Puerto Rico to go to medical school in upstate New York, he was eager to shed any image of himself as “ethnic” or Hispanic. He wanted to integrate into mainstream American life. My only exposure to his culture was when we visited family once or twice a year in Puerto Rico throughout my childhood. Most of my relatives there were eager to speak English (my grandparents were both English teachers in their hometown) and so my siblings and I didn’t become fluent in Spanish. At the time, this distancing was a more comfortable approach for my father. I think as time has passed, he’s realized that we all would have been better off embracing his roots more. Indeed as he gets older his desire to return to PR seems to grow! I often lament not having more enrichment of the culture as people in the Heights do.   -Janice Rivera, (Camila Rosario)

In the Heights - meet choreographer Stefan Sittig

In The Heights is a show about more than just a group of immigrants in the big city (in this case New York City), it is a show about how immigrants have shaped this country and how, through hard-work, resilience and endless energy, have transformed (and improved) our great nation!

I am the proud son and grandson of Latino immigrants. My mother and grandmother (my Abuela) came to the U.S. from Montevideo, Uruguay in the late 60s. They both had to adapt quickly in a foreign land.  My grandmother came over at the age of 50, didn't speak a word of English and had always been a housewife.  She quickly had to learn a new language, learn to drive a car and develop a trade to get a job.   When I look back, it's absolutely remarkable to me how much she and my mother both accomplished in such a short time, and how strong, adaptable and resilient they had to be to succeed here.   And succeed they did!  

In The Heights strikes so many chords for me hard to pick just one --- I identify most with the character of Nina, the daughter of immigrants, with high expectations put on her to be the first to go to college and make her parents and family proud.  And like in the show, my Abuela was a key figure in my life growing up and taught me so much about hard work and determination.   And of course, the dancing (and music) in the show bring back so many memories for me.

In addition to the lessons I learned from my Uruguayan ancestors, I also was raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, another incredibly vibrant Latin country.  From the age of 6 to 18 I lived in Rio and absorbed the language, culture and history of that great city and country!   So I also have the experience of being an "immigrant" myself, trying to adapt to a totally different culture and language. What I took away most from my 12 years growing up in Brazil is that life is short and should be enjoyed!  Music and Dance are a big part of Brazilian culture and "Carnaval" is their yearly celebration of life (think New Orleans Mardi Gras times 1,0000!).   How could I have grown up in that country and NOT have become a Choreographer?  I grew up around the most amazing polyrhythmic music and spectacular dancing every day!  I was lucky!   

So, I've done my best to bring all the rich experiences I have been lucky to have to this creative process and to imbue this show with the spirit of both my Uruguayan ancestors and my adopted country, Brazil!  

-Stefan Sittig (Choreographer)

In the Heights - meet cast member Mary Ayala-Bush

What does it mean to be "In the Heights"?  I'm home!  Truly.  I have two viewpoints of Washington Heights:  my parents' and my own.  My parents moved to Washington Heights from Puerto Rico to join their respective extended family members that had already made "The Heights" their home.  When my parents married, they moved into a six-story walk-up, a beautiful building.  In their entrance, the building's number was inlaid in the floor tiles.  There was a marble staircase with ornate wrought iron railings.  The apartment had fourteen-foot ceilings with crown molding and chair railing.  The bathroom had classic white subway tile and a cast iron claw foot tub.  The apartment was a short two block walk from the subway station and three blocks from their church.  The corner bodega was run by my mother's uncle and my father's cousin.  It was a true community made up of friends and family (and I had a lot of family).  My parents and relatives would often talk about how it was in Puerto Rico.  They loved the island but life was hard and poverty was common.  For them, coming to New York was seen as an opportunity for a better life.

I returned to the old neighborhood as an adult, much had changed but much was still the same.  The apartment building where my parents had lived, still had several units rented by various relatives.  It would take me and hour just to say hello to each of them; or risk their wrath for not visiting.  I remember going to the corner bodega, then owned by a Dominican family, to buy still warm, fresh, Italian bread and ground cafe.  I would run back to the apartment and my aunt would make "cafe con leche".  We would dunk the bread into the sweet coffee.  To this day, the smell of fresh brewed coffee reminds me of sitting at the kitchen table, listening to my aunts, uncles, and grandparents share their stories of Puerto Rico, their poetry, parables, and life experiences.

Being "In the Heights" feels like coming home.

-Mary Ayala-Bush (Abuela)

In the Heights - meet director Frank Shutts

We sat down and asked LTA veteran director Frank Shutts his thoughts, visions, and hopes for this summer’s production of the 2008 Tony-awarding musical In the Heights which opens on July 25 and runs through August 15.  Frank was very excited about this production; we think you’ll see why…

I have waited five years to share this BREAKTHROUGH musical with the LTA audience!  In the Heights first came to my attention in 2010 when I saw the original production on Broadway.  I was so taken by it that I called home afterwards to discuss it but was so excited that I had to hang up and call back later.  This is definitely one show that you will talk about when it is over and not just throw the program in the back seat of the car and drive home unmoved!  This musical has as a lot of heart!

It is the story of a tight-knit community in northern Manhattan where the George Washington Bridge connects New Jersey and New York, commonly called Washington Heights.  It is a neighborhood of transplanted and first- and second-generation immigrants trying to keep their treasured traditions while pursuing the American dream.   It is Fiddler on a Roof and West Side Story for today’s audience in today’s vernacular and today’s sounds.

Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer of the pre-box office-breaking Hamilton which has its Broadway premier on July 13, and writer Quiara Alegría Hudes  give In the Heights its authenticity.  From Latin salsa to standard Broadway ballad, from standard English to a few Spanglish words and phrases peppered throughout, this is not your grandmother’s musical.  And yet it is….

Abuela—Spanish for grandmother—Claudia, whose mother tore them from Cuba in hopes of finding work in New York, is one the main characters in the show.  She is the voice of tradition; she is home for the lost souls who are trying to find themselves:  Usnavi, a young bodega owner; Nina, a struggling freshman in college; and for others who are struggling to form their new identity.
I was very lucky to be able to cast this show.  No area community theater has the upper hand when casting Hispanic roles, especially LTA.  Fortunately for us, area universities and word-of-mouth did a great job, and we were able to cast the show correctly!  It didn’t hurt that this show is a favorite among Latino performing arts groups.

I hope those unfamiliar with this show will take a chance and see what tomorrow’s musicals can be, should be, and must be.

Disfrute!  (Enjoy!)  - Frank Shutts