Lights up on Muse Machine as the arts education organization presents Pulitzer Prize winners Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ 2008 Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights,” the troupe’s 36th annual student musical slated for Jan. 16-19 at the Victoria Theatre.
This story of connection, legacy and love spotlights the mostly Hispanic neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. Over the course of three steamy days in July, family and friends grapple with conflicts, expectations, misunderstandings and financial strains while aspiring to a future that gives credence to the American Dream.
The show’s focus on the tenacity and good-natured spirit of immigrants from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico propelled by the idea of America as a huge melting pot is not lost on the production team.
“We want to celebrate and tell the story of this community and the people it represents in a way that does justice to this time, this place and these people in a manner we think is worthwhile,” said producer Douglas Merk, Muse Director of Student Programs and member of the Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame. “It’s a thoughtful, intelligent, uplifting, and universal show. And I would be lying if I didn’t say the painful injustices of recent years doesn’t make us want even more to tell the story of this particular population, culture and community and the changes they’re going through.”
“This is a story of a thriving community able to ultimately succeed,” said Jeffrey Polk, a Los Angeles-based actor, director and choreographer making his Muse directorial debut. “The students are bringing purity and beauty to this story as well. They are also hungry for the arts. Muse is a beautiful machine of heart, soul and greatness. It’s been an amazing experience.”
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Leading a production of more than 100 young people is Xenia High School senior and Muse newcomer Nate Saner, who portrays the narrator-driven role of bodega/convenience store owner Usnavi de la Vega. Conceptually reminiscent of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Usnavi is the main portal by which “In the Heights” comes alive and is viewed in terms of perspective and pride.
“Usnavi has great depth and layers,” said Saner, a big Miranda fan drawn to the musical’s hip-hop essence. “This show is about the Latino community but also how this community interacts and how tight their relationships are. We’ve also established a tight community as a cast which is what I feel most of all when I perform the role. I love being a part of Muse Machine. It’s very professional.”
Chavin Medina, an eighth-grader at St. Charles School memorably seen in Dare to Defy Productions’ “Seussical,” among others, is equally excited about his Muse debut. His mother and aunt were involved with Muse in their youth and his family is of Hispanic heritage. He plays Sonny, Usnavi’s humorous, street-savvy cousin. “Sonny is wise beyond his years and also headstrong,” Medina said. “He knows about the struggles within his community but he’s not going to allow it to tear him down.”
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Alter High School senior Charlotte Kunesh, an outstanding Sophie in Muse’s “Mamma Mia!” last year, portrays hair-salon worker Vanessa, the object of Usnavi’s affections and the product of a broken home longing to move to a downtown apartment. “Vanessa finds her family in the community around her, which is really inspiring,” Kunesh said. “She is someone who helps showcase the tightness of the Hispanic community, how everyone is family whether or not they’re related by blood.”
The principal cast, in fine form and bolstered by an energetic ensemble at a sneak preview last month, includes Julie Murphy as Nina Rosario, Sara LiBrandi as Camila Rosario, Michael Taylor as Kevin Rosario, Desmond Kingston as Benny, Gabby Casto as Abuela Claudia, Courtney Collinsworth as Daniela, China Crane as Carla, Nick Bradley as Piragua Guy, and Quinn Bennett as Grafitti Pete.
The cast recently grabbed the attention of Miranda, who enjoyed their enthusiastic reaction to the trailer of the upcoming film version of “In the Heights,” set to be released June 26, 2020. “You guys are the best,” Miranda said. “Your reaction warmed my heart and brought me to tears. Break a leg on your show, Muse Machine!”
“Nothing could make us happier than to express our love for this story to the creators who bring it to life,” Merk said. “The loving responses from Lin-Manuel and the movie team has infused our project with excitement and emotion.”
Miranda’s upbeat hip-hop, R&B, pop, and Latin-infused score, which eventually laid the foundation for his blockbuster “Hamilton” and will be music-directed by Jeffrey Powell, is filled with vibrant numbers including “Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith),” “96,000,” “The Club/Fireworks,” “Carnaval del Barrio,” and the title number. Longtime Muse choreographer Lula Elzy of New Orleans says she has had fun creating a variety of character-conscious routines to accommodate the zesty score.
“This show (bridges) traditional Broadway storytelling with modern hip-hop, salsa, and more,” Elzy said. “Everything means something. There’s not one movement that doesn’t say something. Primarily, all the dancing is telling the story (and) it’s not by chance. Washington Heights, like New Orleans, is a melting pot. So, the rhythms, the fusion of people, is something I readily feel. It’s very natural.”
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“We are particularly using two genres – hip-hop and the Latino dances – that were created from the streets and are really of the people,” echoed guest choreographer Armando Silva, a Houston-based dancer, choreographer and teacher who has collaborated on past Muse summer performances. “These genres reflect the meshing of cultures that took place (over the years) to (essentially) create the current American culture. Everybody in ‘In the Heights’ is proud of their heritage, but first and foremost, they’re proud to be an American.”
Keeping an open mind
There was a time you could count on Muse to safely cling to the Golden Age of Broadway for its annual musicals, but recent years have seen a purposeful shift toward the contemporary. In fact, the selection of “Mamma Mia!” clearly implied the troupe was not necessarily afraid of risk or controversy in certain subject matter.
Now, an element of curiosity involves the notion of “whitewashing,” the term applied to casting white actors in non-white roles. Nevertheless, Silva, also assisting the cast with linguistics in his role as production consultant, is hopeful audiences will look beyond presentational issues of race and embrace the story and characters at hand instead.
“I think it’s great that a non-Latino cast is doing this show,” he said. “When ‘In the Heights’ was first (produced), it was done by Latinos with all Latinos to share with everyone the beauty of our culture. Over 10 years later, it’s great everybody has been so drawn or attracted to it that they want to be a part of it. I know the Muse history of doing great shows and creating artists that have gone on to do wonderful things, but taking the time to invite someone like myself that can provide first-hand knowledge of (my) culture and share with the students is (to be commended).”
“In film or in professional productions, opportunities need to exist for people of color, but in a pre-professional or educational scenario, in which you’re learning about a different culture, it’s a different situation,” Merk said. “In many ways, our cast is advocating for the culture. If kids in high schools or middle schools could only play someone exactly like themselves it would be devastating to the educational opportunities for those kids. And so, that’s so much of what’s on the table for Muse Machine — the opportunity for kids to learn. With that opportunity comes so much responsibility to do this show with deep respect and celebration.”
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