Connections: ‘In the Heights’

We were blown away

A handful of parents, a batch of schoolchildren, and a pair of grandparents, including me, went to East Hampton High School on Sunday to see “In the Heights,” this year’s musical, and to say we were glad we had done so would be an understatement; we were blown away.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Hamilton,” composed the music and lyrics for “In the Heights” back in 1999, as a student at Wesleyan University. After making it to Broadway, the musical won four Tony awards before touring companies took it across the country and abroad. It tells a story, in song, of three days on a single block in Washington Heights, in Upper Manhattan. The coffee from the bodega is light and sweet, and the mostly Latino residents, who come from different national backgrounds, are facing the future, which is changing.

The two leading roles were played by freshmen, Alfredo Chavez as Usnavi De La Vega, who owns the bodega and really can rap, and Talia Albukrek, as Nina Rosario, who has a sweet and very expressive soprano. People tend to gush a bit too much about student performances, even those that in truth aren’t that remarkable, but it would be hard to overstate the excellence of this cast. Talent after talent shone across the footlights. 

Even those in character roles drew smiles of admiration and — no kidding — not a few tears of emotion from the audience. The director, Laura Sisco, integrated each in a way that not only recognized differences among the male and female ensemble dancers and chorus but highlighted them. Inventive and lively choreography let them whoop it up, especially in a nightclub salsa scene. 

While specific to a time and place, the plot resonates here, where many families are immigrants concerned about increased scrutiny and where the schools are learning how best to educate a diverse student population. Everyone present at the Sunday matinee, whether onstage or in the school auditorium, surely felt the emotional reverberations of telling this story of community and diversity in these times.

 We were touched even while laughing as we learned, toward the end of the play, that Usnavi’s late parents, who were from the Dominican Republic, named him for painted words on the ship bringing them to America: U.S. Navy.  

At the conclusion, Usnavi — who has come into some unexpected money and seems to be winning the heart of the girl of his dreams (played by the charming Ciara Bowe) — decides to stay in his home, the Heights. He sings:

 

Yeah, I’m a streetlight!
Chillin’ in the heat!
I illuminate the stories of people in the street
Some have happy endings
Some are bittersweet. . . .

 

Ms. Sisco, who runs the Creative Edge, a dance studio in Montauk and Amagansett, had directed her first musical at the high school, “Rent,” last year. Her skillful execution was enhanced by the efforts of Karen Peele Hochstedler, the music director, Brian Niggles, the set and lighting supervisor, a few other professionals, and many students who helped construct the realistic and ingenious set (“Wow!” people around us said as the lights went up) or joined the pit band.

Counteracting any impression that the show — with its unusual polished and knockout set — had cost the school district a hefty sum, Ms. Sisco said the budget was just slightly higher than in previous years and that many things were “repurposed, recycled, borrowed, and created.”  

The fact that it had such a strong impact, she said, was probably because of the unusual length of time devoted to character development. “As a team,” she said of the kids, “they did research and shared experiences.”

Ms. Sisco said she and the other adults involved were “really trying to elevate it to the next level.” And, oh, how they definitely did.