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All in the family: PTC's 'In the Heights' looks at three generations of Latino immigrants

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 2:29 a.m. MDT

L-R: Manoly Farrell (Vanessa), Natalie Hill (Daniela), Emily Vasquez (Nina) and Ariana Escalante (Carla) in the Pioneer Theatre Company's L-R: Manoly Farrell (Vanessa), Natalie Hill (Daniela), Emily Vasquez (Nina) and Ariana Escalante (Carla) in the Pioneer Theatre Company's "In the Heights." (Alexander Weisman)

With the country split down the middle amid a heated political season, a small slice of camaraderie and community pride could be just what the doctor ordered.

And a couple of hours in a darkened theater, with hot Latin brass, infectious dancing and a bit of rap, could fit the bill.

Pioneer Theatre Company gets set to open its first production of the season with the regional premiere of the Tony Award-winning musical "In the Heights."

Set in modern-day New York City, in Washington Heights — a city up to-

ward the top of the subway map (you must take the A-train), "Heights" is a look at three generations of Latino immigrants — their challenge at fitting in while keeping part of their heritage; really, what it means to be "home."

Joseph Morales as Usnavi, left, Debra Cardona as Abuela and Anthony Ramos Martinez as Sonny in the Pioneer Theatre Company's upcoming production of Joseph Morales as Usnavi, left, Debra Cardona as Abuela and Anthony Ramos Martinez as Sonny in the Pioneer Theatre Company's upcoming production of "In the Heights." (Alexander Weisman)

And don't let the word "rap" scare you away. Yes, there's rap. But more importantly, there are family, home, love and a pride in and knowledge of one's heritage.

"I always felt disconnected from my own heritage," said Joseph Morales, who plays the lead male, Usnavi (a name that is explained in the show). "I'm one-fourth Japanese, one-half Mexican and a mix of German, Irish and Native American."

Being a military brat, Morales didn't get much time with the cultures of any of his ancestors. "We moved a lot. I didn't get my Mexican upbringing. And on my Japanese side, my grandmother passed away when I was really young — she was first-generation Japanese. Doing the show has made me question my own background."

Morales was lucky. He played the lead in the first tour of "Heights." "I got to go to Tokyo and explore that side of me. It was full circle. We went to Mexico City and Puerto Rico," he said. "I shocked myself at how much I wanted to know about that side of me and how proud I was to experience it firsthand.

L-R: Debra Cardona (Abuela) and Joseph Morales (Usnavi) in the Pioneer Theatre Company's L-R: Debra Cardona (Abuela) and Joseph Morales (Usnavi) in the Pioneer Theatre Company's "In the Heights." Photo by Alexander Weisman (Alexander Weisman)

"Around the world, people have responded so well," he said of the hip musical. "The themes are universal. They responded the same in Tokyo as they did in Puerto Rico. People really connect with it. "It's told by Latins in this story, but it could be told by anyone."

"I really feel that 'In the Heights' is sort of this secretly accessible show to so many people," said Karen Azenberg, PTC's new artistic director. "It's home. It's family. It's community. The story is so familiar and so universal. I love that this is what I'm coming to say for my first show."

Azenberg relocated her family from New York City to take over as artistic director after Charles Morey's retirement. "I was born and raised in New York. I haven't lived anywhere other than the New York metropolitan area.

"But the people here have been so welcoming. I wake up to mountains and big skies — what's bad about that?

L-R: John Herrera (Kevin), Natalie Toro (Camila) and Emily Vaquez (Nina) in the Pioneer Theatre Company's L-R: John Herrera (Kevin), Natalie Toro (Camila) and Emily Vaquez (Nina) in the Pioneer Theatre Company's "In the Heights." Photo by Alexander Weisman. (Alexander Weisman)

"When 'Heights' became available, I got so excited because I think it's the perfect piece to do here," she said, noting the strong family ties.

"People ask about the rapping," she said. "Rap is not perfect for every type of musical theater, but it's so right for this piece and for the character of Usnavi."

And learning all those words was no small feat.

"To be honest, I'd never rapped outside of my shower," Morales said. "It comes down to storytelling and using your words as percussion."

Before being cast in the tour, Morales went to Usnavi Camp — a three-day rap-training session with many of the show's creators, including Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the show.

For much of the tour, Morales was a standby for Miranda himself. "He was so accessible," Morales said. "and the coolest thing was he went from being this god, this creator, in my eyes, to just being my buddy.

L-R: Joshua Boone (Benny), Emily Vaquez (Nina), Natalie Toro (Camila) and John Herrera (Kevin) in the Pioneer Theatre Company's L-R: Joshua Boone (Benny), Emily Vaquez (Nina), Natalie Toro (Camila) and John Herrera (Kevin) in the Pioneer Theatre Company's "In the Heights." Photo by Alexander Weisman. (Alex Weisman)

"There really is something for everyone, regardless of if you love rap or not. There are incredible Broadway ballads and a wonderful story," he said. "The rap is just 1 percent of the whole package.

"I think people will be surprised. It's really a show that takes you by surprise.

"You know, in America, everyone comes from somewhere. Everyone has a past and past generations that make it possible for us to do the things we're doing now. It's really everybody's story."

If you go . . .

What: "In The Heights"

Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East

When: Sept. 14-29, times vary, matinees available

How much: $38 - $59 ($5 extra day of show)

Web: www.pioneertheatre.org

Phone: 801-581-6961

Email: features@desnews.com

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