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"In the Heights" 

Hitting the heights

Fittingly for a show about community and dreams, the upcoming production of "In the Heights" at Rochester Association of Performing Arts brings together two local companies with big ambitions. Both groups, OFC Creations and the Rochester Latino Theatre Company, are relative newcomers to the Rochester theater scene who have already amassed some impressive credits.

The show itself would be an ambitious choice for either group: "In the Heights" has a large cast, uses a full Latin band, and is a big Broadway musical full of big dance and production numbers. By joining forces, OFC Creations and the RLTC are creating the first Rochester community-theater production of this Tony Award-winning musical.

Eric Johnson, a Rochester native who majored in theater at Nazareth College and now works at RAPA, began OFC Creations as a way to use his knowledge of the artistic and business side of theater, and to provide theater experience to younger performers. OFC makes a point of casting younger actors alongside more experienced adults to learn different aspects of theater arts, often in shows dealing with youth issues. Recent OFC presentations include the pop opera "Bare" and an original musical called "Kitestrings".

The Rochester Latino Theater Company began in spring 2012, founded by Annette Ramos, who is the Education Services Manager for Young Audiences of Rochester, and Stephanie Paredes, who is now the company's board president. Ramos took part in a reading of play called "School of the Americas," in which she played what she calls "a deep Latina — not a clinging lady or a bad girl." The experience made her decide that Rochester needed a theater company that would be "by, for, and about Latinos, that went beyond the stereotypes", and would also support emerging and established Latino theater artists.

The idea led to weekly gatherings at which individuals told their "growing up Latino" stories. These were eventually compiled into a bilingual theater piece, "Sombras de Nuestros Rostros/Shadows of Our Faces," which was performed at Geva, Writers & Books, and MuCCC. RLTC also recently presented a one-act play, "Mi Casa es su Casa," and a reading of "W.A.C. Iraq," a show about Latina women in the U.S. military.

Both groups have a history of worthy productions, but putting on a musical is something else — and there are not many Broadway musicals dealing realistically with the Latino experience in America. "When Annette Ramos heard I was doing 'In the Heights,'" Johnson says, "she immediately got in touch with me to propose working together on it."

Ramos had seen the touring company of "In the Heights" when it played Rochester a few years ago, and was excited to be part of the show. "It's in the style of classic musical theatre, but it uses contemporary music — the cultural music of my people — in a theatrical way," Ramos says.

"We were immediately embraced by Eric," she says. "We knew what we could bring to the table with this show from the beginning, and that was authenticity: help with accents and other cultural details that would give depth to the performance. And Eric's experience with younger actors has been very helpful for our company. For example, before the auditions for 'In the Heights' he offered a workshop on audition techniques, something many of the younger performers just wouldn't have had the chance to get before."

"In the Heights," which opened on Broadway in 2008, was a surprise hit. It ran for more than a thousand performances and won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It is a "day in the life" of a Dominican-American neighborhood in Brooklyn's Washington Heights. The characters are working-class types: a man and his cousin who run a bodega, others who work for a taxi and limousine service or a salon. Their dreams include winning the lottery and leaving the close-knit neighborhood to pursue a college education. Johnson, the director, calls it a show in part about "the culture and the traditions you grow up with — those you decide to keep as part of your life, and those you abandon as you move on."

For the director, the show is important and powerful as "one of the first musicals to show all its Latino characters in a positive environment." Johnson adds that the "In the Heights" cast really looks like a neighborhood, too. "Our cast ranges from 14 years old to 60 — 21 people in all. And they are from all different backgrounds — that is the point of our mission. The RLTC has been a great help with the culture, the cast, and the atmosphere of the show."

While "In the Heights" is indeed a lively and warm-hearted show, its highlight is probably the lively, infectious score. Lin-Manuel Miranda's music and lyrics brought Latin rhythms, hip-hop, and freestyle rap to Broadway, and undoubtedly helped the show to its long run (and to a Grammy Award for its cast recording). Not surprisingly, those Latin and African-American rhythms inspire a lot of dancing, and choreographer Bobby Conte is in charge of putting every member of the large cast through their paces. "Salsa, merengue, hip-hop dance, you name it," Conte says. "I've got them doing everything."

Local theater veteran Adele Fico is returning to the stage with "In the Heights" after several years dealing with health issues. She plays the neighborhood's good-hearted grandmother figure, Abuela Claudia, and she loves the experience and the cast's boundless energy.

"This is a show with a lot of heart," Fico says. "You really get the feeling of a whole neighborhood on stage. The show is about a very specific place, but this is music for everybody, and a show for everyone."

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