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UAHS to present 'In the Heights'

Cast hopes message, music will resonate

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

Upper Arlington students will be the first high school troupe in the state to perform the musical In the Heights, Feb. 20-23.

The musical explores three days in the lives of diverse characters in the largely Latino New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. Created by Lin-Manual Miranda and winner of four 2008 Tony awards, the musical was also nominated for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Vocal music director Eric Kaufmann said he and members of the high school's Symphonic Choir saw the musical on Broadway in 2009, during the choir's East Coast tour.

"It was a huge hit with the kids and instantly became one of my favorites, too," he said. "The music is infectious and so energetic that it just makes you want to dance."

Kaufmann said the performance rights were recently released to the public.

Performances are scheduled at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Feb 20-22 in the auditorium at the high school, 1650 Ridgeview Road. A matinee performance will begin at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 23, at the same location.

Ticket prices range from $10 for general admission to $12, $14 or $16 for select seating. For ticket information, contact uavocalmusic.org or 614-487-5240, ext. 7464.

Kauffman said he ultimately chose the musical for its message.

"It is a message that I think every culture around the world can identify with," he said. "The barrio (neighborhood) is a place of familiarity and comfort. It beckons back to the days when folks sat on their front porches and everyone knew everyone in the neighborhood.

"Every day, folks wake up, go to work and try to make a better life for themselves," he said. "Along the way, they run into setbacks and how they choose to handle those setbacks is the message that every family around the world can identify with.

"We want to belong to a sense of community; we want the opportunity for prosperity and we want to give our kids a greater opportunity than maybe we were afforded."

He said the challenge for a newly released show is "selling it to the public."

"The lack of familiarity often will keep folks from attending a show, no matter how great a production it is," he said. "We believe this show really sells itself to anyone who has ever heard the music. We are working hard to get the word out about our production because we believe strongly in its message, strongly in our performance and strongly in the wonderful Latino music."

Kauffman said it was difficult to pay homage to a specific culture without perpetuating stereotypes.

"We fortunately have several students with Latino bloodlines to help us, not only with some of the unfamiliar Spanish subtext, but also with the proper inflection and general spirit of the Hispanic culture," he said.

Senior Givi Garcia plays Usnavi De La Viga, the neighborhood bodega owner.

"I forget that I'm playing a part because I'm having so much fun rapping and performing with my closest friends," he said. "Whether it's from the rapping, heavy comedic content, or the fact I have a large connection to this from my dad coming to this country when he was 5 years old, this is going to be a role I'll always remember."

He said the songs are all high-energy and easy to sing along with.

A challenge in playing the role was portraying the "awkward side of Usnavi."

"I'm a very loud and self-assured person," he said. "When Usnavi sees Vanessa, his love interest, he becomes very closed off and weird.

"Pulling off the body language of the awkward side of Usnavi is definitely a challenge."

Senior Ruba Elzein plays Nina Rosario, a freshman dropout of Stanford University. As the show unfolds, Nina falls in love with Benny, a childhood friend, but her father won't believe Benny will ever be good enough for his daughter.

"What I like best about playing Nina is that we are so similar," Elzein said. "I come from a loving family very similar to hers and feel the same pressures to succeed in college. My favorite song of Nina's is Breathe, because it conveys some of Nina's deepest emotions.

"I want to make sure I portray Nina in a way the audience can really connect with, so that watching the show doesn't feel like actually watching a production, but more like experiencing the events in the lives of those in the community," she said.

The student assistant director for the production is Gabby Sweet.

Other cast members are Kelsey Miller as Abuela Claudia; Samantha Good as Daniela; Kaki Tzagournis as Vanessa; Anne Guttridge as Camila Rosario; Michael Roberts as Kavin Rosario; Jack LeBoeuf as Benny; Sean Doyle as Piragua Guy; John Lagucki as Graffiti Pete; Viktor Lillard as Sonny and Lexy Weixel as Carla.

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