At Home 'In the Heights'
Director draws inspiration – and talent – from area's vibrant Latino community
By RONNI GORDON
The theme of Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights" is home, and home is where HCC theater professor and director Patricia Sandoval '84 found inspiration for the production of the Tony Award-winning musical opening on campus Thursday, Nov. 8. She found it in the rich Latino culture of Holyoke, drawing on the city and nearby communities for a cast ranging from local high schoolers to HCC students and alumni to community members and professional dancers.
"I believe there is a lot of talent at HCC and in the community, and I wanted everyone to celebrate that," she said. "Everyone (in rehearsals) is enjoying the music and the dancing and the celebration of the Latino community," she said.
But there is more to it.
"I hope the audience takes away an appreciation of the Latino community and a better understanding of the issues involved (such as) gentrification, immigrants' rights ... and the struggle to succeed in college," she said.
Performances are Nov. 8-10 and Nov. 15-17 at 7 p.m., with a matinee at 2 p.m. on Nov. 10, in HCC's Leslie Phillips Theater. The Nov. 16 performance will be ASL interpreted. Tickets are available at hcctheater.brownpapertickets.com ($10 general admission, $8 students and seniors, $5 for members of the HCC community). If not sold out, they will be available at the door.
The story follows a bodega owner (Usnavi, played by HCC student Michael Borges of Springfield) and other residents of a Latino community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan over three days. The performance blends salsa, hip-hop, rap and Broadway ballads, and according to Sandoval, is challenging because Miranda tells the story through the music rather than in dialogue and song like a traditional Broadway musical.
"The interest for the young people is it speaks to them; it is their story," she said. HCC music professor and college chorale director Ellen Cogen, musical director for the production, plays piano along with a nine-piece orchestra comprised mostly of HCC faculty.
She said the show has a similar "vibe" to that of "Hamilton," winner of 11 Tony Awards and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
"The accessibility of our show is incredible," Cogen said. "Ten dollars is the most expensive ticket. The level of the talent is strong, and so is the energy. People will get so much more than their money's worth."
Alberto Sandoval Sánchez, professor emeritus at Mount Holyoke College and expert in Latino Studies, served as a consultant for the production and scholar-in-residence at HCC. "I saw 'In the Heights' a few times on Broadway. It was spectacular. A hip-hop musical for a new generation. This was the first Broadway show with a full cast of Latina/o actors, singers and dancers," he said in an email. "Although it was a box-office success on Broadway, I always wondered what it would be like to bring it to a community-based theater."
Sandoval, the director (no relation to Sandoval Sánchez except for having been his student at Mount Holyoke), said his involvement helped students understand the play's significance – and the culture behind it.
"I am always paying attention to their body language," he said. "Most important, I pay attention to their Spanish. There are many words in Spanish and phrases. I work with pronunciation and enunciation. I want them to feel the Spanish."
Miranda started writing the musical in 1999 during his sophomore year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It premiered in 2005 at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., before moving Off-Broadway in 2007 and then to the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2008, where it won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Miranda grew up in the Inwood section of Manhattan, north of Washington Heights His parents were born in Puerto Rico and met in graduate school at New York University.
"A lot of the show comes out of the theme of home, and what we define as home," he told Playbill at the time. "It's especially a struggle for those of us who were born here and have parents who speak nostalgically of where they came from. What do we take with us? What traditions do we pass on to our kids?"
Tiffany Joseph, an instructor at The Center dance studio in Amherst, choreographed the HCC performance, drawing on the theme of home – as in cast members' roots – to elicit authentic movement from non-dancers.
"Each character has specific feelings and emotions and they bring that out in dance," she said. "Since most are Latino, when they're doing salsa and meringue they feel it in their bodies."
Usnavi: Michael Borges, from Springfield
Vanessa: Ashley Morris, from Chicopee
Daniela: Rochelli Smith, from Springfield
Carla: Nanette Mendieta, from Holyoke
Ensemble: Rose Soucie, from Westfield
Ensemble: Zachary Martins, from Holyoke
Ensemble: Joseph Ramah, from Chicopee
Ensemble: Jerannchris Rivera-Heredia, from Springfield
Ensemble: Chestina Thrower, from Springfield
Holyoke High School students:
Benny: Michael Luciano
Piragua Guy: Adriel Berrios
Sonny: Melina Garcia
Camila: Adriana Piantedosi, from Northampton
Kevin: Axel Cruz, from Chicopee
Abuela Claudia: Shannon Sarkisian, from Holyoke
Ensemble: Adrianelys Sanchez, from Springfield
Graffiti Pete: Tiffany Joseph, from Amherst
Nina: Maya Kirsi, from Northampton
Club Dancer: Steve Bailey, from Easthampton (also HCC alum and staff)
Club Dancer: Roxanne Labato-Bailey, from Easthampton
Club Dancer: Waleska Santiago, from Springfield
Club Dancer: Junior Lozada, from Northampton
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: HCC student Ashley Morris, front, of Chicopee plays Vanessa in the HCC Theater Dept.'s production of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical "In the Heights," Nov. 8-10, and Nov. 15-17. Behind her is HCC student Michael Borges in the red shirt as bodega owner Usnavi, and Holyoke High School students Michael Luciano (as Benny) and Melina Garcia (as Sonny).