Performers Relate to Heritage High Musical 'In the Heights'

Senior Alicia Samuel and junior Matt Balane star as Vanessa and Usnavi in Heritage's production "In the Heights."
(Photos courtesy of Heritage High drama program)
By Emily McKellar

It's "Hell Week" for students in the Heritage High School drama program as they rehearse for "In The Heights," a Latino rap musical that will open this Friday in the school's theater.

Step inside drama teacher Greg Newman’s office, and that’s exactly what it is: Hell.

"This is a really, really bad time for you to be here," says Newman as he attempts to round up the 40 theater students who make up the cast and crew of this modern day musical. For lack of better words, he dashes around the crowded room like a chicken with its head cut off.

It’s right before 5 p.m., when rehearsal will begin. Students are buzzing around Newman’s office rehearsing lines, singing, checking out costumes, setting up stage props, and pulling him in multiple directions at once. All of this chaos will continue until right before midnight, when rehearsal will end.

Students are preparing to deliver a musical unlike any of its kind. Not only does this award-winning Broadway show feature rap, it also shares the stories of minorities and Latino immigrants, who are often silenced or unheard. The show will also feature hip-hop, merengue, salsa, contemporary, and current dancing choreographed by Heritage High dance coach and aerobics teacher Hope Burns.

According to a press release from the school, "In The Heights" takes place in a New York City barrio, where the characters struggle to assimilate to American culture and make enough money to survive. The story focuses on a few major characters whose hardships challenge the authenticity of their dreams.

A musical like this is particularly poignant considering the demographics that make up the Perris Union High School District. As of last year, almost half of the district is Hispanic or Latino.

"[Newman] chose this play because he wanted to connect more to the students," said 12th grader Adam Jenks, the play’s publicity manager.

Members of the cast have been able to relate to the roles they play. For example, Christie Pierre, a senior, portrays Abuela Claudia. The character isn’t an actual grandmother, but she is known as the "abuela of the streets" for her caring and accepting attitude toward everyone.

"She’s a real strong person, who’s loving and kind to everyone, like me," said Pierre.

Matt Balane, a junior, admitted that it was the musical’s hip-hop aspect that prompted him to audition.

"That was the only reason I was attracted to the play," he said. "I didn’t understand theater at all."

As a rapper himself, what Balane does understand is music. He plays a character whose parents sailed from the Dominican Republic on a U.S. Navy ship, and named their son "Usnavi" after it. He was excited to discover that he and Usnavi share the same taste in music, their favorite artist being a notable Latino rapper known as Big Pun.

Besides relating to their characters, acting out their stories onstage has helped cast members grow.

Alicia Samuel, a senior, has been involved in the theater since freshman year. She began by working behind the scenes, but soon emerged from behind the curtain in a breakthrough role as Anne Frank in one of Newman’s previous productions. It was her first time auditioning, and she ended up starring in the play.

Samuel is now returning with a lead role as Vanessa, a character she describes as being a typical girl from the barrio who dreams of leaving town to escape her alcoholic mother.

"I’m a shy person, but this has given me so much confidence in everything," she said.

Other cast members, such as 12th grader Brissia Garcia, make up the chorus. She said that her voice and stage presence has improved since she’s been working with Newman in his Drama II class.

"The class has helped me a lot," she said. "I used to be nervous as hell, but the assignments have helped me become more confident, and not scared."

Newman’s students describe him as being true to theater and not afraid to do anything. Sometimes he can be "like a dictator, but a good one," but his demands, lectures, and training all pay off. He is the father figure of their theater family, providing for a group of students who have become close friends since their involvement in drama.

"He really means what he says, and that’s the great thing about him," said Jenks, who said he’s grown to love his drama teacher after all the pressure and praise he’s received from him.

Together, Newman and his students have put on a range of comedies, musicals and dramas. Heritage was also one of the first high schools in the area to perform Andrew Weber’s famous Broadway musical, "Phantom of the Opera."

Although the cast of "In The Heights" has been rehearsing since February, practice has become more intense as the pressure to fill a whopping 475 theater seats approaches. The theater usually seats 500 people, but 20 seats had to be removed to fit the orchestra, made up of Heritage High band students.

The budget for musicals like this is usually about $15,000, but thanks to the play’s modern day setting, the drama program was able to spend less on costumes. The theater is partially funded by revenue earned from annual talent shows, ticket sales, and the candy grams sold during intermission.

"In The Heights" will be showing March 28, 29, and April 4 and 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for students. Heritage High is located at 26001 Briggs Road in Romoland.

Alicia Samuel and senior Christie Pierre, who stars as Abuela Claudia, rehearse a scene for the upcoming musical.


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