Greg Williams calls “In the Heights” a new generation’s “Rent,” where life unfolds not in a bohemian community but a predominantly Latin neighborhood.
It’s here where the musical plays out on a mixed backdrop of hip-hop and Broadway, where each character has a story to tell.
“And you learn about each of these characters as the play progresses,” says Greg Williams Jr. founding artistic director of New Venture Theatre.
“In the Heights” opens on Thursday, Sept. 11, in the Manship Theatre. The show also marks New Venture’s first as the Manship’s official resident theater company.
“We’ll make that announcement to our audiences at the first performance,” Williams says. “This is a great milestone for our company.”
The musical also is a personal milestone for Williams, who has wanted to stage it since earning his master’s degree at the New York Institute of Technology. His parents attended his graduation ceremony and took him to the a performance of “In the Heights” to celebrate.
“I loved the story, and the music was absolutely wonderful,” Williams says. “It really blew me away. It was about people I knew in life who are struggling to survive. It’s the ‘Rent’ for a new age.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the music and lyrics, and Quiara Alegria Hudes wrote the book for the show, which premiered off-Broadway in 2007 and made its Broadway debut in 2008, eventually winning the Tony Award for best musical later that year.
“In the Heights” tells the universal story of a vibrant, urban community in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music. It’s also a community that’s about to change with tradition giving way to modernity.
“It’s an extremely young environment, and though it’s predominantly Latin, other races live there, as well,” Williams says. “And as traditions leave the community, others come together to save it.”
Williams has reached out to people in Baton Rouge’s Hispanic communities to help with the production.
“I want to make sure we get the dialect rigwht, the accents,” he says. “And it’s all inspired me to take a Spanish class after the show is done.”
- Melissa Seidule is one of the actors working to get the dialect right. She plays 19-year-old hair-salon worker Vanessa, whose dream is to leave the barrio.
- “In real life, I’m not like Vanessa,” Seidule says. “She’s sunny, and she pushes the envelope. But that’s what’s fun about being on stage — playing someone who isn’t like you.”
“In the Heights” marks Seidule’s first appearance with New Venture. She’s also acted in several Theatre Baton Rouge musicals.
“This show has a beautiful blend of English and Spanish,” she says.
“And I love it, because it’s so much bigger than me,” Williams says. “If I had stayed in New York and acted, I would have only had a chance to be in some of these shows. But in coming home to direct in Baton Rouge, I’m able to work with a theater company to bring all of these shows to the stage. It was the best move I’ve ever made.”
- CAST: Darrion Hill, Graffiti Pete; Roger Ferrier, Unsavi; Ronald R. Smith, Piragua Guy; Brandy Lynn Johnson, Abuela; Alana Scott, Carla; LaNea Schalet, Daniela; George Myer, Kevin; Denisa Simon Joshua, Camila; Toi Bonnet, Sonny; Kevyn Miller, Benny; Melissa Seidule, Vanessa; Arianne Deruise, Nina; Ebony Marcelin, Breathe Soloist; Ketreon Butler, Jose; Jasmine Tiplin, Yolanda. Featured Dancers — Kristian Ford, Ketreon Butler, Darrion Hill, Brandon Oliver, Jas Ceasor, Jasmine Tiplin, Evelyn Williams, and Brittany Thopmson. Ensemble — Chris T Murray, Christian Jones, Ebony Marcelin, Kai Lewis, Tya Wicker.
- ARTISTIC STAFF: Greg Williams Jr., director; Kelly Latchie, set designer; Dorrian Wilson, costumer; Melissa Brunkan, musical director; Dwight Bell, choreographer; Christopher D. Daniel, stage manager, Caiden Crockett, assistant director.