EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 24, 2014

Lawrence High students perform 'In the Heights'

Broadway musical set in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood resonates with Lawrence students

By Yadira Betances

---- — LAWRENCE — When Sofia Cardenas first rehearsed “In the Heights” she not only got goosebumps, but cried.

She plays Nina in Lawrence High’s production of the musical “In the Heights.” The show looks at the every day life of Hispanics in the Washington Heights section of New York. Nina, who goes to Stanford University on scholarship, is afraid to tell her parents she dropped out of school.

“I am in my comfort zone because I’m going to college,” Cardenas said. “Nina is the character that I don’t want to be in real life.”

Other characters in show include Usnavi, who owns a bodega or Spanish grocery store, played by Ricardo Rios; grandmother Claudia, played by Jahnilsa Cartagena; Sonny, Usnavi’s cousin, portrayed by Stephania Cueva; and a man selling piragua, played by Christopher Vega.

Piragua is a Puerto Rican frozen treat shaped like a pyramid similar to Italian ice.

The show features singing, rap, church hymns and dancing to merengue, salsa and hip hop music.

The rights to the Broadway score and script became available this year and Lawrence High drama teacher Matthew Evangelista jumped at the chance to have his students perform it.

“The whole show is about the Hispanic American experience and it speaks directly to our kids,” Evangelista said.

When casting a play, Evangelista said he usually takes all students who audition. But he was more selective with this show, choosing only 30 out of the 70 students who wanted to be in the musical.

In addition to the cast, Evangelista had students from his scene design class create the 18-foot set. It features brick tenement buildings with grates on its windows and a 16-foot replica of the George Washington Bridge. Actors walk in and out of six working doors.

Evangelista is being assisted by Miranda Katz, a senior theater education major at Emerson College, and Andy Short, an Emerson alum — both are doing their student teaching at Lawrence High.

“Their acting comes from the heart. They have a passion for theater, but they can see themselves in the show,” Katz said about the students.

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the lyrics and composed the music for “In the Heights,” which won Drama Desk Awards for outstanding ensemble, performance and choreography in 2007; Tony Awards for best musical, original score, choreography and orchestration in 2008 and a Grammy for best musical show album also in 2008.

Stephania Cueva, who used to live in New York and visit relatives in Washington Heights, said she can really related to the show and its themes.

“Lawrence can be considered a little New York, with the domino players and the piragua,” said Cueva, who plays Sonny.

Although the musical is about Hispanics, Cueva said it speaks to all ethnic groups.

“Everyone can relate to them, because there are different characters who want to get out of the neighborhood and make a better life,” Cueva said.

If you go:

What: “In the Heights”

When: Feb. 27, 28 and March 1, 6, 7 and 8 at 7 p.m.; March 8 at 2 p.m.

Where: Lawrence High School Performing Arts Center, 70-71 N. Parish Road.

Cost: $10 and $7.