If you get to tag your high school musical production with “From the creator of Hamilton,” you have pretty much got the winning lottery ticket. And, according to the hip-hop lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” — East Hampton High School’s musical this year — winning the lottery makes you “richer than Nina’s daddy/Donald Trump and I on the links/and he’s my caddy.”
The predecessor to “Hamilton,” the 2008 Broadway hit “In the Heights,” Mr. Miranda’s first musical, was nominated for 13 Tony Awards. It won four: Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations. It was also nominated for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and won an Olivier for outstanding achievement in music.
Such an abundance of accolades could easily produce stage fright among any teenage ensemble. Yet it only seems to have galvanized this East Hampton troupe. At a recent dress rehearsal, the 38-member-strong cast, under the direction of Laura Sisco, attacked the material with exuberance and ease.
Exuberance is a good thing in this play. The story is a teeming slice of life set in the Latino barrio of Washington Heights, a nosebleed section of Manhattan and a neighborhood on the brink of change in the 1980s. At the center of this tight-knit community and its many colorful residents is Usnavi, a first-generation Dominican-American bodega owner, played on Broadway by Mr. Miranda himself. Usnavi struggles to keep his business afloat in a corner of the city where creeping gentrification (an issue that has hardly gone away) and subsequent challenges scar and shape the lives of the denizens. The real brilliance, however, lies in the score, with its blend of rap, hip-hop, and salsa, and in its choreography. It is an intoxicating mix — and, done right, the show could generate enough energy to fuel a power grid.
Alfredo Chavez, a freshman at East Hampton High, plays Usnavi. “At first, I was so happy when I got the part,” said the 14-year-old. “Then I realized I’m going to be playing a role that Lin-Manuel Miranda once played, and I got really nervous.” Having to fill the breeches of the Bard of Broadway, however, only made Alfredo work even harder, and it appears to have paid off.
The other day he rapped and rhymed his way through razor-sharp lyrics, peppered with sassy Spanish phrases. Alfredo, whose first language was Spanish, made it seem as if singing and dancing about the barrio were the most natural form of expression for him: “ ’Cuz my parents came with nothing, they got a little more/And sure, we’re poor, but yo, at least we got the store/And it’s all about the legacy they left with me, it’s destiny./And one day I’ll be on a beach with Sonny writing checks to me.”
There’s something great about a high school production that mines the immigrant experience, especially today, and especially in a school district with a burgeoning Latin-American population. Not only do Latin-American students get to play Spanish-speaking roles other than those in “West Side Story,” but the musical brings to the forefront challenges faced by immigrants not only on the East End but across the nation.
Usnavi’s love interest, Vanessa (Ciara Bowen, a senior), lacks the credit rating to move downtown from the Heights; Nina (Talia Albukrek, a sophomore), the bright daughter of a cab company owner, had to drop out of Stanford because working two jobs took a toll on her grades; Benny (Brandon Daige, a senior) works as dispatcher at the company but longs to open his own business, and Sonny (Vincenzo Salsedo, a sophomore), Usnavi’s younger cousin, has no future other than working in the bodega. And then there’s the elderly Abuela Claudia (Hannah Rosario, a senior), a kindly grandmother/godmother to all.
Ms. Sisco, herself an E.H.H.S. graduate, insists she did not choose “In the Heights” to make a statement but simply because she knew it would appeal universally. Producing an unconventional play such as “Heights” is part of her mission to take the school’s theater department to the next level, she said.
The move from traditional musicals to more contemporary offerings began last year when the school performed “Rent.” The play tackles issues of homosexuality, H.I.V., drugs, and alcohol, which some deemed inappropriate for high school students. But Ms. Sisco, who directed it — her first show at the school — said she felt “it was time to revamp the program.”
“In the Heights” had a different set of challenges. Karen Hochstedler, the play’s vocal director, called the score “extremely complex.” She has been working with the performers every day since November.
Brian Niggles, another East Hampton alumnus, is the set and lighting director. Together with a contractor, who happens to be the director’s father, he spent over 60 hours building a detailed version of the bustling barrio. “It was really tricky,” said Mr. Niggles, “as it all takes place outdoors, on a busy street, so getting the scale of buildings right was difficult. Having to light it for different times of the day wasn’t easy either.”
Show times are Friday, March 3, and Saturday, March 4, at 7 p.m., and Sunday, March 5, at 3 p.m. Tickets, which are $15 for adults and $10 for children under 12, are available for purchase only at the door. Doors open 30 minutes before show time.