They make it look so easy, those Tabor Academy drama students. Every year, the young actors pull off another musical production as if they were born to play the part. On second thought, they don’t merely pull it – they smash it.
That’s why this year’s selection of In the Heights, created by famed Hamilton writer Lin-Manuel Miranda, was selected not only for its compelling story, but also for its challenging nature. It’s multi-cultural, set in a mostly minority barrio neighborhood full of characters whose lives are much different than the ‘average’ Tabor Academy alumni, and the actors’ lines are almost entirely in song.
But put a group of talented Tabor students, a top notch drama director, and a passionate musical director in the same room and that point of a challenge becomes moot; challenge, shmallenge, they’re going to smash it again this year.
Even with an entire week before opening night, the Friday afternoon dress rehearsal was already a nearly polished performance. And it didn’t matter that the ratio of inexperienced actors in lead roles to experienced Tabor thespians was closer this year. Under the direction of Mark Howland and with the support of fellow Tabor students, everyone was shining like a star.
Tabor student Samantha Figueroa was essential in her role as consultant for the production – she grew up in New York City and spent much of her childhood in Washington Heights. She had the actors really getting to think about life there – the language, the outlook, even the hair and clothes and the way storefronts and streets look, all reflected in the costumes and set design.
“I was kind of trying to get the cast to really understand the life,” said Figueroa, “so the characters for them weren’t just characters. I was helping them to connect with their characters because the more in touch with a character you are, the better it is.”
Music Director John Horne said the very nature of the production is a challenge – its characters that live in a working class inner city neighborhood facing blackouts in electricity, financial hardship, dreams that seem out of reach – the barrio, “Where every day is a struggle,” said Horne. But the play also reflects on the close relationships within the community – a tightknit community – and of course, the tribulations and triumphs of the family unit.
“It’s a timeless story, but it’s also a modern play,” Horne said.
Calling for a multi-cultural cast meant a loud casting call aimed at procuring a diverse cast to accurately reflect the faces of the barrio. Kelsey Boch who plays Camila Roasario, co-owner with her husband of Rosario’s Car Service, said they really had to “call out the troops” to form the multi-cultural cast, which features a number of roles considered leads or primary roles.
Harding Daniel who plays Boch’s character’s husband, Kevin Rosario, has participated in three musicals now, but this is his first leading role. It’s the sixth Tabor production for drama veteran Hanna Rolighed, who plays Daniela – the loud, bold beauty salon owner who loves to gossip.
“She does all the plays,” said Boch.
The curtain opens just before dawn. A graffiti artist is the only one stirring in the street until bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (Brian Lee), who is a narrator of sorts throughout, chases him off as he arrives to open the store. Lee is first to bust out with his musical lyrics, rapping about the main characters of Washington Heights – those whose lives unfold daily in the shadow of New York’s Washington Bridge.
It’s the hottest day of the summer when Nina Rosario (Mia Vaughn), the first in her family ever to go to college, returns from her Ivy League school with the difficult task of telling her parents that she lost her scholarship and dropped out after becoming overwhelmed by working two jobs and keeping up her grades. Her traditional and overprotective father and strong-willed proud mother are disappointed, and Nina’s father announces he has sold Rosario’s to pay for Nina’s education, creating strife in the family.
Benny (AJ Macrina) works for the Rosarios and falls in love with Nina, which infuriates Nina’s father who rejects Benny because he is not Latino. Vanessa (Ellyn Cuningham) is the stunning young woman who works in the hair salon and dreams of “getting out” of the barrio one day, and Sonny (Matt Carvalho) is Usnavi’s enthusiastic yet clumsy assistant at the bodega. Abuela Claudia (Amelia Rolighed) is the matriarch of the barrio who took Usnavi in when he was young. She wins the lottery and keeps that a secret from her neighbors until Act 2.
The lively show full of dancing and music that spans the genres of traditional Broadway music, rap, hip-hop, merengue, and salsa, takes place over the course of three days in the characters’ lives and ebbs and flows from the playful to the emotional until Act 1 tensely culminates with a power outage and the barrio is plunged into darkness.
It’s a tale of love, joy, heartbreak, and of course hope for the characters and an experience of awe and splendor for the audience of this Tabor Academy winter musical production. The show is free for all and opens Thursday, February 15, and runs until February 17. The show starts at 7:30 pm and is located at the Fireman Center for Performing Arts at Hoyt Hall, 235 Front Street, Marion.
By Jean Perry