In the Heights

Mankato East High School's production of "In the Heights" begins Thursday.

In the Tony Award-winning play “In the Heights,” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda paints a lush, detailed and nuanced portrait of the largely Hispanic Washington Heights district of New York City, complete with plenty of culturally charged personalities that make the play look, feel and sound like an east coast barrio.

This fall Mankato East High School — an educational institution that sits more than a thousand miles from NYC geographically, and a bajillion light years culturally — will attempt to bring this dramatic tour de force to life.

Challenging?

“Um, yeah,” says Sam Nelson, the young man who snagged the lead role of Usnavi. “The Latino culture has so much more energy, so much more spirit.”

One of the biggest learning curves, the cast and director Jan Urtel said, was in movement.

Can the kids at East bust a move? Sure. But this is different. Hispanic dance is a whole lot about the hips; Midwestern thumb and elbow dancing simply won’t fly in a production like this.

“We had to learn how to move,” Urtel said. “That was hard for a lot of them.”

“In the Heights” is chock full of music. Between the play’s two acts, there are 24 songs, some of which are sung by one character, some are sung by the entire cast.

Roughly 75-80 percent of the story is related to the audience via song, with just a few instances of spoken dialogue sprinkled throughout.

The play is reliant on a cast that can convey story and message through song — a challenge for any actor, especially young ones.

The play largely follows bodega owner Usnavi through three days in his Washington Heights neighborhood, beginning at sunrise on what we’re told is the hottest day of the summer.

From there it winds through the lives of a cast of characters — families, business owners, extended family — that illustrates struggle, turmoil, jealousy, togetherness, survival, upheaval, resilience and a sense of family among most who inhabit this neighborhood.

Financial struggle is the play’s lifeblood, and eventually Usnavi’s bodega gets looted. He and other business owners face failure, or come to the brink of it.

Loves are won and lost, and in the end Usnavi must decide whether to abandon the Heights and return to his homeland Dominican Republic, or stay in a neighborhood in turmoil (but which is the only place he can call home.) And of course, in the end there is hope.

Urtel said the story seemed to resonate with the students.

“They seem to love the story,” she said, “and are aware of the parallels in everybody’s lives.”

And even though culturally the material presented a learning curve, it also presented a dramatic work that, in some ways, reflected the faces of Mankato East High School in a way that no “Romeo and Juliet” ever could. Mankato is becoming more diverse, and nowhere is that fact more evident than at East. Dozens of different languages are spoken in the halls every day.

A play such as “In the Heights” presents lives of immigrants, lives of people of color, and there is value in that, Urtel says.

“We want to tell stories on the stage that reflect our culture,” she said. “We have a solid population of Hispanics that don’t get recognized.”

Alyssa Debill plays Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest in the play. She said she didn’t know the story prior to learning “In the Heights” would be the fall musical. But she “did a lot of YouTubing,” and learned — and came to love — the songs.

She said the entire cast loves them along with her. That collective discovery of this story, combined with the dozens of hours they put into preparing for a musical, has created a tight-knit group for the 26 cast members and crew. They’ve all become much closer, learned a lot and can’t wait to present this to their peers, families and the community.

“We’re all pretty excited,” she said. “And you don’t have to be part of the Latino culture to appreciate the play.”

Added Nelson, “If you’d asked me two weeks ago what I thought, I wouldn’t know what to say. But over the last two weeks, it’s really come together.”

Urtel agrees. She said she’s seen the cast go from zero to almost ready in a few short weeks, and she’s proud of what they’ve accomplished.

It was also a great learning experience.

“(They learned the value of) giving 120 percent to something that you believe in,” she said, “and knowing the other members of the cast are giving 120 percent as well.”

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