It’s quite the sight to see East Hampton High School’s performance stage set up to look like a typical neighborhood in Washington Heights, with balconies overlooking the local bodega and the residents trying to find ways to get by.It’s so real and the people on stage sound so natural in the environment.
Such is the setting for “In the Heights,” the Tony-winning 2008 musical written by the now-famous “Hamilton” composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, which East Hampton High School students will perform from March 3 to March 5. This annual production continues a recent shift from more traditional musicals like “South Pacific” and “Grease” to more contemporary pieces like “Rent,” which was last year’s production. “In the Heights” takes places in modern times on the northern tip of Manhattan, following characters of different races and nationalities as they deal with daily struggles.
Now in her second year of directing the high school musical, Laura Sisco said she thought doing “In the Heights” would be another high bar for the students to clear.
“Last year with ‘Rent,’ we felt like that was a huge challenge and we felt that they really responded to it because they could relate to it more than, say, ‘Hello, Dolly!’,” Ms. Sisco said on Sunday during rehearsals. “We felt that this was going in the same direction as far as being more modern and contemporary.”
Instead of the usual piano- and orchestra-led music, the show is mostly backed by a piano and a set of bongo drums to add to the multi-racial atmosphere. Also, Mr. Miranda’s now-famous style of mixing hip-hop vocal delivery with musical theater singing is also featured prominently in “In the Heights.” Many of the show’s ensemble musical numbers, like “The Club,” “Blackout,” and “96,000” feature the ensemble divided up in sections singing certain parts of the song and trading off verses while staying synchronized with one another. Harrison Darenberg, a 17-year-old senior playing the role of Kevin Rosario, sees this as an essential element to the show’s aesthetic.
“We’re trying to embrace the feeling that there are multiple different people in a different area and we’re trying to make it so that people are trying to show some sort of life form other than just a bunch of lead roles talking the whole time,” Harrison said.
The show does have some crucial characters, including the Dominican-American bodega owner Usnavi, who acts as the narrator for many of the scenes. Played by 14-year-old freshman Alfredo Chavez in his first musical ever, whose nervousness of being onstage has faded away over time.
“Well, first of all, having to do a Lin-Manuel piece is insane, he’s just so amazing,” Alfredo said. “I was nervous at the thought of it at first, but I think once you get up there with people and you really create a relationship with each other, it doesn’t seem like there’s an audience. You become the character.”
Sticking with the theme of the original show, the high school production features a multi-racial cast. One of them is Talia Albukrek, a 15-year-old sophomore who plays Nina, a Latina woman. Talia learned to accentuate her speech properly to adopt the mannerisms of her character, but also tried to bring something personal to the role. When she sings one of the show’s early numbers, the confessional “Breathe,” when Nina is concerned about how to tell her parents she dropped out of college, Talia pulls something from her family history.
“My grandparents live in Israel and Turkey, so you think about that background of coming from there and having to go here, you think about that background and it helps to zone in on how hard it is to drop out of college,” she said. “If you think about how much you love your family and how much you wouldn’t want them to hear the news, especially because it’s Washington Heights and it’s so hard to get out of there, it’s a very important thing. I try to capture how she’s been thinking about it for the past four months, she’s been waiting every day trying to tell them. You just have to zone in on personal experience and try to capture that feeling.”
“In the Heights” will open on March 3 and run through March 5. Information about show times can be found at easthamptonschools.org.