Keeper of the Plans

Music Theatre’s summer finale ‘In the Heights’ is a celebration of diversity

Music Theatre Wichita presents the cast of “In the Heights,” the Tony Award-winning Best Musical which is the company’s 2019 season finale.
Music Theatre Wichita presents the cast of “In the Heights,” the Tony Award-winning Best Musical which is the company’s 2019 season finale. Courtesy photo

Before “In the Heights,” there were few Broadway musicals that truly celebrated Latin culture.

A few featured Hispanic characters — I’m thinking of “Man of La Mancha,” “West Side Story,” “Evita” — but oftentimes characters that were written to be Hispanic have been played by white actors.

Enter Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose debut musical “In the Heights” took Broadway by storm in 2008. The musical’s honest, heartwarming depiction of life in the diverse Washington Heights neighborhood won multiple Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

But beyond that, the musical shone a bright spotlight on actors and actresses of Latin descent.

It’s what inspired Jonathan Arana, who plays the “Piragua Guy” here, to pursue a career in musical theater.

Arana said, in high school, he saw the touring production of “In the Heights,” which featured Danny Bolero and Natalie Toro as husband-and-wife duo Kevin and Camila (roles the two are reprising in Music Theatre Wichita’s production).

“The first time I ever saw the show, I thought, ‘Oh my God, there I am,’” he said, referring to seeing Hispanic representation on stage. “I was just a high school kid watching the show, and now I’m in this world with them and others. They paved the way for young people like us now to keep it going.”

Music Theatre Wichita opens its production of “In the Heights” on Wednesday, and it features a diverse cast — some of whom have performed in Wichita before.

The lead character Usnavi (who was played by Miranda on Broadway) is played by Ernie Pruneda here, who recently played the role in Orlando, Fla. Pruneda, who was a MTW company member in college, was also in the original Broadway cast of “Sister Act.”

“(Music Theatre Wichita) was my first professional job out of college,” Pruneda said. “It’s so beautiful to be coming around full circle and bring back all that I’ve grown since I worked here in the ensemble.”

The musical incorporates rap and hip-hop numbers alongside its Latin songs, promising a new and exciting experience for MTW regulars.

Though the musical’s story is specifically about Latin-Americans in New York City, people of all cultures can empathize with its story.

“For me, this show is about community,” said director/choreographer Carlos Mendoza. “It’s about family, it’s about love, it’s about hopes, it’s about dreams, and overall it’s about faith. It’s so universal.”

While the musical does have some Spanish-language numbers, you don’t have to speak Spanish to understand its plot.

The MTW ensemble features some familiar faces from this summer’s shows, and other new talent brought in specifically for this show.

“All of the Latin characters in this show have been cast with people of Latin heritage,” said Wayne Bryan, MTW’s producing artistic director. “When it came down to it we just had some blonde folks (in the summer company) that needed to go away before this show. But we made sure they had at least three, possibly four shows for the summer.”

The sets that will be seen on the Century II stage are the original designs Anna Louizos created for the national tour, and the costumes are being produced for this show by Danita Lee.

In short, if you enjoy Miranda’s follow-up 2015 musical, “Hamilton,” you will love “In the Heights.”

‘IN THE HEIGHTS’

What: Music Theatre Wichita’s 2019 season closer, the 2008 Tony Award-winning musical that launched the career of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who went on to write “Hamilton.”

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, Aug. 7-8; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Aug. 9-10; 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 10-11; and 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 11

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas

Tickets: $25-$70, from the Century II box office, by phone at 316-265-3107, or online at www.mtwichita.org.

More information: Show is rated PG. Running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes. Children must be at least 5 years old to attend.

Matt Riedl covers arts and entertainment news for the Wichita Eagle and has done so since 2015. He maintains the Keeper of the Plans blog on Facebook, dedicated to keeping Wichitans abreast of all things fun.
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