If the key to achieving a dream is to follow one’s heart, where does one find the heart? Simple: home. Defining home is not so simple. This complexity is explored musically throughout “In the Heights,” the second official St. Olaf Theater Department production of the season.
“Is it where you came from, where you are or where you’re going?” asked Kelsey Myers ’17, the show’s assistant director.
The musical was selected in part because of its significance in the context of a college campus: Students come from various corners of the country and world, live here at St. Olaf College and are contemplating where they will go with their lives. But of these three stages in each individual’s life, which do they truly consider home? Mirroring an infamously confusing period of life, “In the Heights” seeks to provide guidance to those grappling with this question.
The play follows the owner of a bodega in the “barrio” of Manhattan over the course of three days as he witnesses the inspirations and decimations of dreams. Change is coming for all the characters, and it is time to face their pasts before they can leap into their futures.
The show is a challenging but enticing kaleidoscope of dance and music focusing on one Latino community that is united by the heartbeat of dreams. With its cultural foundations in a Spanish-speaking community, much of the show involves songs with Spanish lyrics, such as “¡No Me Diga!” “You Don’t Say!”. In order to honor the show’s roots, Natalia Romero ’15, who is originally from Colombia, instructed the cast on correct pronunciation and diction. The key to learning Spanish was “repetition,” according to Romero. This meant constantly repeating lines and songs with Romero’s guidance to ensure the right accents and timing.
“The actors were proactive about meeting up to discuss and learn the Spanish on their own time,” Romero said.
Once the language was mastered, the music was the next obstacle. The blending of music was difficult due to the many different Latin dance rhythms that swirl through the songs. There are distinct traces not only of salsa music, but also of rap, which helps to narrate the play. However, rather than the harsher style of rap that is championed by many artists today, the rap in the show is meant to be “conversational.” Romero, who is also the show’s musical director, remarked that this style of rap “made the show unique.”
The generally held consensus was that the music was “challenging but fun,” Romero said.
From this blend of styles emerges one of the most well-known aspects of the show: dance.
“This is very dance-heavy. It’s not an easy show,” Romero said. Styles in the show range from break-dancing to partner salsa dancing and practically everything in between. Even during scene transitions, characters will emerge from the façades and dance together. The dance choreography was styled by two dance instructors brought in by the play’s director, Professor of Theater Karen Wilson.
The ensemble’s constant presence keeps the show’s dance aspect in focus. They are everywhere. Even during solos, they will join in the musical expression, even if just to add ambiance with background dancing. The intricate interactions of the population of the barrio are reinforced by the cast’s cohesive warmth.
“Everyone is happy, super cooperative and welcoming” said Myers. “It speaks to the theater as a family. This is our home.”
Romero echoed Myers, saying that the cast members “all have a lot of personality, which is fun to see.”
Despite a mixture of class years and perspectives, the cast bonded through the rigors of rehearsals. This characteristic fondness is echoed by the musical’s director. Leading this cast of characters is Wilson, whom Myers described as “an amazing fairy godmother of a person.”
Through language lessons, dance rehearsals, original student-designed lighting and clear dedication to learning new styles of music, the members of “In the Heights” have prepared a whirlwind of a tale for their audiences.
So just where is home? Go see the show to find out! Tickets are on sale online and at the Theater Building box office. The play is scheduled to take place in Kelsey Theater on Nov. 15-17 and 22-24. All showings are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. with the exception of Nov. 17, which is at 2 p.m. and Nov. 24, which is at 1 p.m.
Photo Credit: VALENTINA YANG/MANITOU MESSENGER