Lin Manuel Miranda’s ‘In the Heights’ a Spirited Musical at Players By The Sea

Lin Manuel Miranda

Interview with Director Joe Kemper

Before Hamilton lifted Lin Manuel Miranda to new heights, the Tony Award-winning playwright and cultural phenomenon made his mark with a spirited musical In the Heights honoring the memories of growing up in Washington Heights and traditions of his Puerto Rican heritage. Players by the Sea closes out its 2017-18 season with the musical In the Heights Aug. 20 at Players by the Sea in Jacksonville Beach. The production runs through Aug. 12.

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Set in the largely Hispanic New York neighborhood, the show is narrated by Usnavi, owner of the local bodega who longs to return to his native Dominican Republic. Played by Matias de la Flora, Usnavi narrates the story from his point of view behind the counter. The mix of backgrounds, experiences, flavors, sights and sounds all come together to create a tangible connection to the stories of the residents, many of whom are grappling with life-changing decisions.

Dialogue is a shining example of Miranda’s gift as a storyteller, inflections of his history resonate within the characters and inspire audiences to connect to the soul of the story. In the Heights has been staged all over the world, including Denmark, Peru, Belgium, United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Canada and Miranda’s native Puerto Rico. The cast also feels a familiar pull to the words, many channeling their own truths through the script.

“Lin writes women really well and that’s what I love about this show. It’s really rare in musical theatre to find a show that has more than two principal female characters. Usually there’s the love interest and the best friend. We have seven really fleshed out female characters and what I love about them is they each have their own solo in the show and not one of the solos is about a man,” says Kemper. “I wanted them to bring their own story to this show. The idea of community as a singular that is made up of individual parts. I wanted those individual parts to come together to create this story that they’re telling really beautifully.”

For de la Flor, his own history echoes many of the same themes throughout the musical. His own parents moved to the United States from Peru when he was just 5 years old. The struggles of the characters hit close to home. “When I do this show, I do it for my parents. They were adults when they came to the United States. I know who this people are in my head. My grandma in the show is my grandma in real life. The people who are friends, but we call them family. I know they will know who I’m thinking of in every moment because it’s for them, too. The way Lin and Quiara [Alegria Hudes] wrote this story, it’s hard to not hit it,” he says.

   

“My goal is to understand the text enough so that I know exactly what I’m saying is supported and has intention and the audience understands what I’m trying to convey. The music is so well-written, it gives me opportunity to emphasize different parts of the music and really take my time. Joe has really given us freedom, I hope the audience sees those little moments that we’re sprinkling a little extra salt on.”

“This is a really difficult show. Technically, physically, rhythmically. You have to find actors that can sing, that can dance, that can rap, that can tumble, that can do everything. There is every reason for theatre not to do this show… I want the community to see the amazing talent we have because its amazing that they’re able to handle all that and tell this story every single night. We’re very lucky.”

Actress Zoe Rosas plays the role of Nina, who is the first in her family and the neighborhood to go to college. She is ashamed that she’s returning home to tell her family that she’s dropped out. The score that laces together the character vignettes reminds Rosas of the soundtrack from her childhood. That connection is an integral part of her character development and Nina’s relationship to her home. “When you hear the music, it’s not hard to relate,” she says. “I love it because it reminds me of the music I listened to when I was a kid, the mariachi music that my mom would play all the time. I think about my family and my heritage and I want to learn more.”

Director Joe Kemper sets the pace of the story, which echoes the staccato rhythm of the score. It’s a voluminous score with spicy salsa, hip hop, tender ballads and soaring classic musical theatre numbers that inflect each scene with the right sentiment. Kemper said he’s fortunate that the bulk of his cast has been “obsessing over this score for years.”

“This is a really difficult show. Technically, physically, rhythmically. You have to find actors that can sing, that can dance, that can rap, that can tumble, that can do everything. There is every reason for theatre not to do this show. We’ve assembled a group of actors that are remarkable from Florida School of the Arts, musical theatre students from JU, Douglas Anderson and a sprinkling from all over. I want the community to see the amazing talent we have because its amazing that they’re able to handle all that and tell this story every single night. We’re very lucky.”

About Liza Mitchell

april, 2022

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