Original cast member helms 'In The Heights' in Deal
As an original cast member of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” Luis Salgado played the role of Jose and gave the show much of its authentic movement as Latin assistant choreographer.
Ten years later, he’s still making his mark on the production.
“At that time, there were backstories that I would have loved to contribute, and now I get to fully explore them. A lot of stuff from that time was in my head and in my spirit, and it’s not until now that I get to revisit and attempt to conquer how it affects or informs the development of these characters,” said Salgado, who is directing and choreographing a run of the show at Axelrod Perfoming Arts Center in Deal.
“There’s so much heart and there’s so much depth in the work, and I don’t feel like I have even started scraping the surface of what is in there. I’m lucky to be doing this production in New Jersey, and then starting another in Washington, D.C., because I just get hungrier and hungrier with this material.”
“In the Heights” tells the story of a few days in a tight-knit Latino community in Washington Heights as they find struggle, success and the definition of “home.”
The richness of the text is a testament to Miranda and bookwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes, working alongside much of the same team that would go on to see their stars skyrocket with the success of “Hamilton,” musical director Alex Lacamoire, director Tommy Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler.
“This team was such a young and humble and hungry team,” Salgado said. “Their commitment to the work they were doing wasn’t just aiming at an end result, they weren’t just trying to do something that would make a hit. They were actually investing, step by step of a journey, making something that was complete.”
Much of the show’s allure to Salgado (Broadway’s “On Your Feet,” “Rocky,” “Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown”) is the way the story resonates in his own life.
Ten years ago, he said he most connected with the story of Kevin Rosario, father of Nina, the show’s female lead.
“Back in the day, I think always the Kevin Rosario song ‘Inuitil’ connected me so much to this journey of being Puerto Rican, the essence of where I come from. I was always very touched by the part where this man says, ‘My father was a farmer, his father was a farmer and you’ll be a farmer. But I told him Papi, I’m sorry, I’m going farther, I’m getting on a plane and I’m going to change the world someday.’
“When I see that, I kind of look at my own life, I moved to New York, kind of escaping a little bit my own reality and trying to expand on the things I wanted that were outside of my heritage,” he continued. “I already danced salsa, so I didn’t want to come to this city to do that. I wanted to come to the city to expand my hip-hop knowledge, my contemporary knowledge, my classical knowledge, the musical theater world. But I found myself belonging and celebrating and empowered when I realized, wait, I can still learn hip-hop and I can still learn contemporary and I can take all of these acting classes, and yet I don’t have to renounce who I am. I don’t have to hide my accent and I don’t have to hide my Latino-ness and the steps that come so naturally out of my own body.”
This time around, he says it is the character of Nina where he finds the most resonance.
“Elizabeth (Ritacco, of Toms River), who’s playing Nina, as a performer, she makes me fall in love with her at every rehearsal,” Salgado said. “There are a lot of new moments in my heart that have become more relevant and in the arc of this woman who is simply looking to belong and looking to not fail and looking to not let people down. I have children of my own now and I have a wife and they look up to the decisions I make every day. The pressures that Nina Rosario feels, we all feel at some point.”
Message of belonging
Salgado also believes the show’s root message is perfectly timed.
“It’s kind of basic to me. It’s the idea of belonging,” he said. “Every immigrant or every minority, quote-unquote, in the United States belongs in this society. That is the beauty of how the United States of America has been built. The idea that every culture or every minority is thinking or doubting or questioning what is home, is ultimately the biggest question we have in our show right now.”
He also believes the show’s humanity, spirit and realism is important in a political climate that has sharply divided the country, specifically on issues like immigration.
“Of course the political reality that we are living enhances the process and the potential and the reason and the why we’re telling the story today,” Salgado said. “I just feel more than ever that a story like this and a show like this allows quote-unquote minorities to be celebrating who they are for who they are without drugs, without guns – just a pure celebration of their culture and their relationships in this neighborhood. I think that’s beautiful and human, and more stories like that should be coming forward in the next four years.”
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In addition to Ritacco, Tampa native Jonathan Mousset is starring as Usnavi de la Vega. The cast also includes Maité Uzal (Abuela Claudia), Laura Lebron (Vanessa), Jordan J. Adams (Benny), Matthew Oster (Sonny), Shadia Fairuz (Camila Rosario), José Fernando (Kevin Rosario), Tanya DeLeón (Daniela), Danelle Rivera (Carla), Joomin Hwang (Graffiti Pete) and Roberto Araujo (Piragua Guy) and ensemble members Joelle Anderson, Adam Bourque, Aaron Cobos, Miguel Flores, Myriam Gadri, Andre Malcolm, Marcel March, Bryan Ernesto Menjivar, Amaya Perea, Jenna Perez, Nathalia Raigosa and Susan Ramirez.
Ilana Keller: 732-643-4260; firstname.lastname@example.org
IN THE HEIGHTS
WHEN: March 11 to 26
WHERE: Axelrod Performing Arts Center, 100 Grant Ave., Deal
TICKETS: $31 to $38, student and senior discounts available
INFO: 732-531-9106 or axelrodartscenter.com