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In the Heights at Broadway Palm promises to soar for SWFL audiences

No matter who you are or where you live, you have undoubtedly heard the name Lin-Manuel Miranda. Children, their parents and, yes, their grandparents too, know Miranda through the Disney film Encanto, which won best animated feature at this year’s Academy Awards. Speaking of which … Miranda’s runaway hit from Encanto, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” opened this year’s Academy Awards and another song from the film received a best song Oscar nomination.

Most folks know Lin-Manuel Miranda as the creator of the 2015 Broadway smash Hamilton, which won 11 Tony Awards. When the show came to the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Center for a two-week run in 2020, the demand for tickets was so great that the producer held a digital lottery two days prior to each performance where lucky theater-goers could win a ticket for the rock-bottom price of just $10.

But before Encanto and Hamilton there was In the Heights – a groundbreaking Tony-Award-winning musical that tells the story of a vibrant community in New York’s Washington Heights where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music. And like Hamilton, this show deserves to play to sold-out audiences too.

Eliseo Roman, who directs the show, is excited to bring this story to the Broadway Palm stage.

“What I think is wonderful about bringing this show to Broadway Palm is that if you’re not familiar with New York because you’ve never traveled there, or if you’re not familiar with this culture … what’s beautiful about the show is that it shares a culture, a people, a music that is full of life and quite thrilling. And it’s not whitewashed, if you will. It is three days of storytelling in this part of New York City that is beautiful and rich in culture and delicious,” Roman said.

The storyline revolves around a young bodega owner named Usnavi, who is the eyes and ears of his Washington Heights community. His parents died when he was young, but among his fondest memories are the stories they told of their former home in the Dominican Republic. The seeds they planted in his imagination have blossomed now into an undeniable desire to return home.

Justin Torres, who plays Usnavi, elaborates:

“The show takes place over three days and in those three days, all sorts of things happen in this neighborhood. And along with that, Usnavi is longing to, what he thinks, is to go home. He wants to go back to the Dominican Republic and own a bar by the shore and rest. And as the show goes on, things happen and it sort of puts that in question of what is home. Is it a place? Is it a feeling? Is it people? Is it all of it? So that’s sort of his dilemma throughout the show.”

Who hasn’t grappled with these sentiments? According to U.S. Census Bureau data, only 13% of Americans between the ages of 31 and 50 live in or near the city in which they grew up and only 6% have lived in or close to the place they were born for 50 or more years. For those who stay, family and friends are the number one reason. In fact, two studies conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2017 found that family is what makes life most meaningful for Americans regardless of race or ethnicity.

Director Eliseo Roman thinks that universal themes like these are one of the chief reasons why In the Heights resonates with audiences.

“There’s a lot of information in the story, and a lot of heart, there’s a lot of things that an audience can connect to without having to be in the culture or where it’s from," said Roman. "It is universal in its storytelling. It’s universal when it comes to family. It’s universal when it comes to the struggle of our kids. It’s universal when it comes to love. And it’s universal when it comes to the death and all those feelings that brings us to our humanity.”

America has often been referred to as a melting pot. But the assumption, nay the expectation underlying this reference is that immigrants give up their own culture and assimilate into the mainstream American way of life. What makes In the Heights so special is that it explores themes like family, kids, love and loss through the lens of Latin culture.

Themes like these are presented through the show’s many subplots. One involves Usnavi’s bashful interest in a fiery cosmetologist by the name of Vanessa, who works in the unisex beauty salon next door that is being forced to move to the Bronx in the face of gentrified rising rents. And then there’s his childhood friend, Nina, who is thinking about dropping out of Stanford because the only way her parents can afford to pay her tuition, books and room and board is by selling the family business.

While universal, each of these stories is told through a multicultural lens.

“One of the strengths of this show is being able to see its diversity on stage because it really does reflect the diversity that we have in that area and New York City, period,” said Roman.

That diversity is reflected in three ways that are unique to the Broadway Palm production.

First is the casting. Because of COVID-19, auditions were virtual, but literally hundreds of actors and dancers responded to the open call. Roman, his choreographer Rebecca Kritzer and Broadway Palm casting director Brian J. Enzman looked and each every one.

“And we selected the people that we felt best fit our vision of the show and we are very fortunate to say that we are very pleased and happy with this cast, and I think everyone who’s coming to see the show will have an experience and feel the same,” Roman said.

Second is the choreography, and for that, Broadway Palm went to someone with pedigree. Rebecca Kritzer was part of the cast of the original touring company and worked directly with In the Heights’ original creative team, including Lin-Manuel Miranda and the show’s seminal choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler. But you won’t see Blankenbueler’s choreography on the Broadway Palm stage. Kritzer has developed her own culture-specific choreography just for this production.

“What I think is so special about this show is we are able to tell a story of real people in a real place who can be authentically and unapologetically themselves on stage, and so through my choreography I wanted to bring that honesty and that humanity," said Kritzer. "So I developed a movement vocabulary that all people on stage, whether you be a principal or ensemble, everyone has a relationship to movement and it correlates directly with whatever musical number is happening, whatever the temperature, the tone, whatever the moment in the storytelling is, it is represented through the movement because I do believe that movement is such an important and integral part of storytelling.”

Kritzer’s dance numbers and blocking are not just informed by her time on tour and her understanding of the show’s foundation. She’s been dancing since the age of three, is classically trained, and is conversant with hip-hop and all styles of Latin dance. As a Cuban-American and Miami native, she’s steeped in Latin culture. And as an NYC transplant, Kritzer is conversant with Washington Heights.

“Having that background of classical training, the background of my culture, it seems like just the perfect amalgam to be able to have that to inform the choreography that I was going to bring to the show now, thirteen years after the first time that I interacted with the show,” she said.

But here’s what makes her approach truly unique and why what you see unfold on the Broadway Palm stage you will never see any place else.

“Um, so what I’ve done because I have such a history with the show I understand what each musical number is trying to say from the beginning to the end and I choreograph specifically to the lyrics not necessarily to the music. So every lyric has a movement representation that is attached to it, so that whatever the audience is absorbing sonically, they’re also absorbing visually.”

Director Eliseo Roman has an even greater pedigree than Kritzer.

“Well, being from the original Broadway company gave me insight, working with Tommy Kail, our director, and Andy Blankenbuehler, our choreographer, as well as Lin Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire. They were the power team, if you will. And working and creating the show initially gave us an opportunity to really find and be specific as to where the story was going – where it comes from, where it’s going and what it’s for," Roman said. "For me, really delving into the material was easy because one of the things that is very specific about the show is that it represents a lot of us who have not been seen before in musical theater. So, for us, when we were rehearsing this information and creating it, it wasn’t farfetched for us to create it because we live it and have lived it for most of our lives. So what I wanted to do bringing it here to the Broadway Palm is taking a real good look at the things that made most sense to me and then seeing it through a different lens so that when people enjoy the show and see the show, they also see it through a different lens.”

And part of the lens that achieves this focus is Evan Adamson’s set design and John P. White’s costumes. If you’ve ever been, you’ll swear you’ve been transported back to a classic upper Manhattan barrio.

But in the final analysis, what most people will remember about In the Heights is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s incredible score. In that regard, lead actor Justin Torres says it’s unlike anything you would normally see in a musical theater show.

“I remember when I first listened to the cast album for In the Heights and I heard Lin start that just the beginning, the opening number was like ‘This is musical theater? You can do this?’" recalled Torres. "And I’m like these are references that I grew up with and that I understand and can see myself in the music. And I think that it … if anyone – and I hope everyone comes to see this show – they’re going to walk out of here like humming these tunes, these melodies and, yeah, it’s amazing.”

In the Heights plays at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre through May 14.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

This Spotlight on the Arts feature is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.