“In the Heights” rises up and above expectations

Elisa Fang and Amruta Baradwaj

On the days of Jan. 19-22, the DVHS drama program presented Tony Award winning musical “In the Heights” on stage, accurately portraying the true chaos-yet-awe-inducing matters surrounding the importance of family and friends.

By the time we arrived, the show was about to start in 15 minutes, and the excitement was almost tangible the way the audience chattered in their seats. The auditorium was packed: parents, friends and friends of friends sat in anticipation for the lights to dim and music to play. Indeed, an insane amount of people were drawn to this musical, as its themes centered on the family and interaction of a closely knit neighborhood, in this case, a largely Dominican-American neighborhood in Washington Heights, New York.

“It’s something we all deal with, the process of finding out who we are and where we belong,” Mr. Paul Vega, DVHS drama teacher and director of the musical, commented on the appeal of the show.

The musical’s attraction could also be found in that “In the Heights” is written by Lin-Manuel Miranda back in 1999, the lyricist of the popular Broadway production “Hamilton”: a narrative about the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

The tickets were all sold out, the theater was buzzing; needless to say, expectations were high.

After the lights went dark, and legal warnings and a joke about Tinder by Mr. Vega (“You don’t need tinder, there’s a lot of people here with the same interests, so hopefully you can find someone you’re compatible with,” he said, and the audience giggled), the orchestra began to play, and the musical began.

Graffiti Pete (Jessica Ocampo) opens the stage, effortlessly dancing as she spray paints a small bodega owned by Usnavi (Ayman Azizuddin). Usnavi chases her away, thus beginning the small conflict between the two, and opens the store, launching into the first song introducing the characters (“In The Heights”). The tight relationship of the neighborhood is revealed immediately by Usnavi’s dialogue with Abuela Claudia (Vanathi Sundararaman), the neighborhood matriarch who everyone adores, about the heart medicine she isn’t taking. Suitingly, “abuela” is “grandmother” in Spanish. Nina Rosario (Megan Burgess) is the character who manages to “escape” the neighborhood in pursuit of success by acquiring a scholarship to Stanford; however, she returns and prepares to tell her parents that she had lost the scholarship due to the two jobs she works in order to pay for textbooks (“Breathe”). While her parents, Kevin (James Miguel Patricio) and Camila Rosario (Riya Gupta) seek an emergency loan to keep their taxi dispatch in business, they leave the young employee Benny (Rupesh Barman) in charge, and Nina and Benny take this time to reconnect (“Benny’s Dispatch”).

In a salon run by Daniela (Veronica Van Avermaete) and her foil Carla (Jocylin Bovet) across the street, Vanessa (Alison Lee), who also works in the salon, dreams of getting her own apartment downtown to escape her alcoholic mother (“It Won’t Be Long Now”). Lee’s vocals continuously captivated the audience, with continuous murmurings of “she’s amazing” in reference to her solos.

Vanessa, despite catching the eye of almost everybody in town, is Usnavi’s love interest, so when Sonny (Michael Favorito), Usnavi’s sassy-yet-ambitious younger cousin asks her on a date on Usnavi’s behalf, she accepts.

Sonny, while being the mischievous boy he is, often acted as the comedic relief of the musical, with a superficial laziness that recognized the banter between him and Usnavi about his job at the bodega as one of good intentions.

“I just play myself,” Favorito said, regarding how he fits in with his character.

Sonny also has an outside perspective of conflicts that occurred in the neighborhood, and as a result, has a special, uncomplicated insight to their resolutions. He seems as though he is the glue that unites all the characters together and makes them act the way that they do.

As seen during the winter rally, the uncensored version of “96,000” is then given context, as Usnavi discovers that his shop sold a winning lottery ticket, with a worth of — you guessed it, $96,000. In the next song, Abuela Claudia reflects on her journey from Cuba to New York, and how she practically raised the orphaned Usnavi when he was younger. Within the song’s closing measures, the beloved abuela reveals that she was the one who bought the winning ticket, and she plans on keeping it a secret.

The rest of the Act One continues with harsh decisions, exercises on pride, and a blackout at the club. Each character had a well developed backstory, communicating the character’s dreams and fears enough to explain how their troubled actions were result of good intentions, as well as keep the audience’s emotions in constant turmoil. In the harsh heat, the neighborhood dissolves into chaos as Vanessa, Usnavi, Nina and Benny look for each other in the dead of night, Abuela Claudia reveals to Usnavi she has the winning ticket, and Nina and Benny seal their romantic undertones with a kiss. Sonny and Graffiti Pete set off fireworks to ward off looters of the bodega, and with the production’s clever use of colored lights, Act One ends with a bang.

Act Two is the cultivation of reactions spurred on by the intense heat, as the previous night’s blackout left the nearby areas devoid of power. The bodega, despite their efforts, has been looted, Nina and Benny worry about Kevin’s reaction to their relationship and Abuela Claudia convinces Usnavi to take her $96,000 and go to the Dominican Republic.

A powerful performance in the resolution of these problems was by Camila Rosalio, who up until this moment was relatively tolerant of her husband’s control issues. Gupta’s vocals drove the emotion home for the audience and indicated the beginning of the resolution for the conflicts of the play.

Aside from the flurry of emotions, there also lay a small side story in the one character of Piragua Guy (Francis Arroyo), who sells piragua in competition with Mister Softee’s ice cream truck. The song “Piragua” in Act One and its reprise in Act Two doesn’t go much into the detail of “Piragua Guy” but his narrative from being unable to sell his drink because of his competition, to the flourishing of his business because the Mister Softee truck breaks down, nicely supplements the overall mood of the plot.

As the characters’ dreams seem closer than ever, it seems more and more likely their beloved neighborhood will soon disband. However, a death makes everyone question their priorities and desires, and they collectively realize their little neighborhood is not as dismal as they once thought. They realize that family is a priority they will always have, and as Usnavi expresses in the finale:

“I’ve found my island, I’ve been on it this whole time- I’m home!”

Compared to “12 Angry Jurors” earlier in the season, the set of this musical was infinitely improved. A beautiful screen displaying a bridge was in the background, giving the set a true city vibe.. The stage featured buildings with balconies, and desks that could be pushed into their cubby-houses, and on the desks displayed telephones, microphones, and even boxes of Twinkies in the front of the bodega.

“We built the building from scratch, so I was terrified to go on the balcony at first. But now,” Hadas Tankel said, then showed off her moves with fellow ensemble member Ben Marston, “we just dance it out.”

According to Bethany Vega, this was the “most elaborate set since Beauty and the Beast”, and as expected, a lot of time was needed to make the set as detailed as it was.

“Literally, the first time we danced on the back steps was on opening night,” Aiden Vehemente (ensemble) said.

Along with costumes consisting of dresses, shorts and t-shirts, the overall look of the stage sold the idea that the musical occurred during the summer, despite the fact no one forgot the weather outside was actually raining buckets.

As rehearsal began Oct. 24, “In the Heights” has been in production for quite some time, and their professionalism and dedication paid off on stage. The raps and song paired with the orchestra was consistently synchronized, and the choreography was executed with energy baffling in origin. However, with a cast of 33 performers, there were bound to be inconveniences that could not have been predicted beforehand. For example, opening night, Benny, played by Rupesh Barman, collided with another performer, and ended up with a nasty bloody nose.

“I didn’t think much of [the collision] at first, but then I realized my nose was bleeding,” he said. After trying to cover it for a few moments, hoping the bleeding would stop, he ended up running offstage where the other cast members helped him regain his footing. “The tech crew was amazingly helpful. The other cast members had to help me put on my clothes, and we made it just in time for my next big scene.”

As Lauren Ottley (ensemble) performed with a broken toe, two other members with the flu, and another performer in the emergency room, the phrase “the show must go on” gains a bit more perspective, as the show did not only continue, but also impressed an expectant audience.

The musical’s theme surrounds family, and so it would make sense for the cast to become like family both onstage and off stage — which was exactly what happened.

“I never thought we would be this close,” Jessica Ocampo commented, addressing her friendship with Favorito, “but now we’re like this,” and she punctuates the sentence by clinging onto him as a koala would a tree.

“We did cocaine on stage,” Favorito joked during an energetic intermission.

“That’s not true, we do not condone the use of drugs,” Bethany Vega (ensemble) immediately disclaimed.

Overall, the musical left an inspiring message among its viewers.

“That made me want to try out for the next musical,” an audience member announced as we exited the auditorium.

“It was worth it. It took a lot of time, a lot of work, but every single moment was worth it,” Vehemente stated about his experience as an ensemble member.

“The cast is very diverse and we’ve never had a latin musical before,” said Rebecca Khoudian, assistant stage manager. “For me, the fun part was meeting new people.”

Per usual, the DVHS drama program never ceases to amaze with the production of its musicals, and the pride of their work could be seen in the smiles of all the crew’s faces.

“It’s not a high school production,” Mr. Duane Ingram, English 10 and 12 teacher, praised.

For those wondering if “Hamilton” will ever hit the stage, well…

“Hamilton is still relatively new in its broadway run, so if any of the other shows are any indication,” Mr. Vega laughed, “it’ll be another 15 years before it makes the stage.”