‘Heights’ a production for ‘21st century audience’
By Jenette STurges firstname.lastname@example.org September 12, 2013 5:50PM
(center, cheering) Nick Demeris leads the cast as Usnavi in In the Heights at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Paramount is presenting the first Chicago-area professional staging of the Tony-nominated musical that follows three days in the lives of residents living in New York’s largely Hispanic Washington Heights neighborhood. | Photo credit: Liz Lauren
Updated: October 15, 2013 7:04AM
It’s a marriage of old and new, of universal storytelling and some break-dancing, too.
The curtain at the Paramount in Aurora goes up Saturday on “In The Heights,” a new addition to most theater-goers’ musical canon. The Tony Award-winning show premiered on Broadway in 2008.
And, says the show’s star, the first production in this year’s Broadway series at the Paramount is unlike anything you’ve seen before in musical theatre.
“I don’t do musicals. I went out of my way to get this because I love this music,” said Nick Demeris, who plays Usnavi, the story’s narrator and owner of a small bodega in New York’s largely Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood. “‘In the Heights’ is perhaps the most inclusive, inspiring, outrageously fun and incredibly authentic musical I’ve seen in a long time, if not ever. It’s so honest and so beautifully written, musically especially that it opens your heart.”
Critics seemed to agree with that assessment of the musical, written by newcomer Lin-Manuel Miranda. In addition to its four Tonys, the show was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
“It’s so playful and so explicitly wonderful in its language,” he said.
The role is Demeris’ first musical. His acting background is in Shakespeare, and his acting career also includes teaching workshops on the intersections of Shakespeare and hip hop. As a fan of “In the Heights” since its Broadway debut, he jumped at the opportunity to take on Miranda’s work.
“I was really drawn to this because of that combination of hip hop and Latin music and clear and honest storytelling that seems to reverberate from each character in the play,” he said. “It is a 21st century musical for a 21st century audience, which reflects the growing diversity in America.”
The storytelling, he said, engages audiences with the same sorts of literary devices that made Shakespeare’s work so universal and relevant to people of all classes, across time and culture.
“The masters of language today, of verse language, of non-prose, are rappers. They’re the best,” he said, “Lin-Manuel is the person in theater today who most clearly understands the relationship between the language and play. The play of language here is so vivid.”
So, too, is the action on stage.
Demeris called “In the Heights” the most physically demanding performance he’s ever done. Though the stage throughout the performance is packed with dancers, off-stage the actors are still working, singing backup to support those on stage. As Usnavi, Demeris has no more than a five-minute break throughout the entire performance.
“I think Hamlet got more breaks than Usnavi,” he said.
“In The Heights” offers a slice-of-life portrait of the Spanish-speaking immigrant neighborhood filled with hopes and dreams — of a college education, a successful business, a winning lottery ticket, or just paying the rent on time.
As such, the language is a colorful, though highly comprehensible, mash-up of English and Spanish, the dancing is salsa and break dance, and the scenes on the street corner of Usnavi’s bodega are bathed in the brilliant hues of a Latin nightclub.
But, that doesn’t mean that only Latino audiences will like the show, Demeris said.
“It’s so universal, Latino or not, high school, college students, everyone under 35, families ... The only person that in my mind wouldn’t like this musical, who wouldn’t be interested in it, is somebody who is afraid of their own neighbor,” Demeris said. “If you have the courage to be friendly with people you walk down the street with or walk out of your house and say ‘hi’ to, you’re going to love this, because that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about community. It’s all about the interdependence of this neighborhood, which everyone experiences, especially in America.”
“In The Heights” officially opens 8 p.m. Saturday, and is rated PG. For tickets and more information, go to www.paramountaurora.com or call the box office at 630-896-6666.