Artes de la Rosa, the performance and visual arts group housed at Rose Marine Theater, had originally planned to produce Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita for its spring 2013 musical. But artistic director Adam Adolfo had for several years fantasized about staging a newer, more ambitious show: In the Heights, the epic Tony Award-winning 2008 musical about personal ambitions and generational conflicts set in New York City’s largely Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood of Washington Heights. Then, out of the blue, Adolfo received an e-mail stating that the production rights to In the Heights were available. He was excited and a little nervous about having his troupe stage the show’s Southwest premiere, but he jumped in and grabbed the rights anyway.
“The story is so powerful,” Adolfo said, “and it’s such an ethnic-specific show, that I asked myself, ‘Do I dare run the risk of letting another company do it first, a theater that might produce it without the cultural sensitivity and awareness that we could bring to it?’ I sort of look at the show as Fiddler on the Roof for Latinos, in the sense that it manages to honor the traditions and roots of a community but still be young and edgy and innovative. That’s the balancing act Artes de la Rosa always tries to achieve with its shows.”
He was well aware that this would be the biggest show Artes had ever staged, in terms of both cast and plot. The musical’s overlapping plotlines, carried out by Quiara Alegria Hudes’ book and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music, call for a cast of 26 actors/singers/dancers, at least a dozen of whom have significant story arcs within the production. (That’s in addition to nine orchestra musicians needed to perform the show’s score, which includes salsa, Latin hip-hop, and straightforward Broadway-style balladry.) But Adolfo believed that the talent was waiting to be tapped in the North Texas Latino community, and he was right:
More than 150 people tried out for the show during three days of auditions. Director Adolfo, his associate director and choreographer Elise Lavallee, and musical director Kristin Spires finally chose the 26 performers from Fort Worth, Arlington, Denton, Rockwall, and other area cities. Some already knew the original cast recording by heart, while others had learned of the musical just before auditioning. One of the things that united them was the desire to do a show with compelling urban Latino characters that didn’t focus primarily on crime, drugs, or immigration issues.
“For this ethnic community, there are so few shows that we can call our own,” Adolfo said. “In the Heights is not West Side Story, where the characters carry weapons and run around causing trouble. One of our leading ladies plays a character who’s just come back [to the neighborhood] from Stanford. The fact of a young Latina going to a prestigious college is different and exciting for a lot of people to see. One young Latin guy wants to be a business owner, another one wants to become a community activist and political advocate for the barrio. There’s no gangs, no drug-dealing, no random pregnancies.”
Adolfo continues with a laugh and another comparison: “That’s not to say that the show is Bye Bye Birdie either –– it’s not just a perky little musical. It’s emotionally charged, full of ups and downs, heartache and joy.”
The Rose Marine is a historic building, but Adolfo concedes that the venue has its limitations as a performance space To prepare for In the Heights, workers removed the first row of seats to create an orchestra pit. To avoid crowding the small-ish stage with such a large cast, Adolfo utilized every inch of the theater space, staging songs, dance numbers, and dialogue in the aisles. In his mind, the design challenges of the Rose Marine created an opportunity for more personal storytelling and involvement by the audience, which is part of what the show’s creators wanted to accomplish.
“In a place like Washington Heights, people often don’t go beyond their own neighborhood,” he said. “It can feel isolating, but it’s also more intimate. With this show, there’s always activity going on around the audience. They get pulled into the characters’ lives, the way they would if they were just walking down the street hearing people talk. In the Heights is about that vibe of community as family.”
In the Heights
Thru Jun 9 at Rose Marine Theater, 1440 N Main St, FW. $10-25. 817-624-8333.