By Ron Leir
It’s only his second time on stage at Kearny High School, but senior Alex Vazquez is rising to the task of tackling a lead.
So says Michele Samoski, who is directing Alex and a cast of 33 in the high school’s spring musical, “In the Heights,” opening March 19.
The show, which focuses on a low-income neighborhood in the Washington Heights section of New York City whose residents rally round each other, features as many as 25 songs – mostly ensemble-based – and six big dance numbers, all done to rap and hip hop stylings.
It was produced on Broadway in 2008, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegria Hudes and it featured Miranda in the lead role of Usnavi.
“This was the first show Miranda wrote and it won the Tony for Best Musical,” Samoski said, “but this is only the second year it’s been available for licensing.” His new show, “Hamilton,” a hiphop musical, is currently at The Public Theatre (in which he’s starring) and will move to Broadway in July.
“In the Heights” was picked for this year’s KHS spring offering, Samoski said, “because the team was looking for something more contemporary and dance-heavy” and this was a show that certainly satisfied those criteria.
Given, Samoski said, that the music for the show is “challenging,” the director scheduled eight weeks of rehearsal after casting was completed in January. She’s been ably assisted in the process by Milly Gonzalez as choreographer, Scott Burzynski as vocal/orchestra director and keyboard player and John Bednarczyk as set and lighting designer.
For Samoski, the production marks her first time around as KHS director but she’s got a wealth of prior experience, having done several of the 24-hour musical challenges for Kearny-based W.H.A.T., now going into her sixth season with the Teen Drama Co. (she’s co-owner) and is currently fall play director at Paramus High School where she’s previously directed and produced plays and musicals.
Quick to recognize show biz effort when she sees it, Samoski has nothing but high praise for her KHS troupers.
“This is one of the most energetic casts I’ve ever worked with,” she said. “There’s a lot of talent here.” And she has all the more respect for her group as “triple threats” – mastering the rigors of dancing, singing and acting.
So, kudos, for example, to Alex who, she said, has learned to “rap and sing well” and who “has emerged as a leader,” in getting his colleagues “to do great things as well.”
Other featured performers are senior Julia Truskolawski, a veteran of three prior KHS musicals: “Cats,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Once on This Island,” who plays Nina; junior Ashley Martins, who was paired with Alex as twin “Cats,” is now cast as Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest; and freshman Sasha Lopez, who is in the “comic relief” role of Daniela.
Evidence of the excitement about their craft and this show came through abundantly in separate interviews with Julia and Alex.
“Being in musical theater in Kearny has been the best experience of my life,” said Julia. “I love performing in front of people.”
She has seen “In the Heights” no less than six times on Broadway with three cast changes and actress Mandy Gonzalez has been her “favorite” Nina “because she’s so versatile” in conveying the range of the character.
As part of her preparation, “I watch the tapes” of the show to “study how people act and try to make it my own,” Julia explained. “This is my favorite show of about 50 that I’ve seen. My sister Catherine and I go to shows together.” In case you haven’t guessed, Julia definitely wants to pursue acting as a career.
Alex, meanwhile, despite being a relative newcomer to the stage, has quickly warmed to his new avocation. “I feel free being up there and expressing my feelings,” he said. Thus far, the biggest hurdle to overcome has been dealing with “a lot of rapping” his character is called on to do. “I need to have the chops and the teaching to spit the words out,” he explained. To that end, he’s been faithfully practicing diction exercises.
Like Julia, Alex is a big fan of the show. “The first time I saw it (on tape) was 30 minutes before I auditioned,” he confessed, but, from that first look, “I fell in love with it. I saw the show and I said, ‘Let me give it a shot.’ And I got my dream role.”
As for the future, Alex remains practical-minded. After graduation, he’s thinking of “working in computer engineering but, if I do have a backup, it’s definitely theater.”
Rounding out the cast, other featured performers are seniors Lilah Orengo (playing Camila) and Samantha Armenteros (Abuela/Claudia) and George Zapata (Piragua); juniors Dennis Oliveira (Kevin), Quan Kelly (Sonny) and Mike Rozzelle (Graffiti); and sophomore Xavier Heim (Benny).
In the vocal ensemble are juniors Emily Erdman, Jayleen Fuentes and Kelly LeVan and sophomore Gustavo Lima. Ensemble members are seniors Maria Huapalla and Starlynn Velez; juniors Stephanie Herrera, Melanie Hil and Carly Hull; sophomores Alize Rodriguez, Taylor Wright, Daniel Alexander, Israel Machaca, Kevin Pardo and John Sorial; and freshmen Julia Benedicto, Alyssa Fink, Catherine Garcia, Arianna Gomez, Brianna Heim, Eduarda Serafim and Mauro Torres.
Playing with Burzynski in the band are: KHS teachers John Kubowicz and Jeremy Gorin (both reeds), student teacher Natasha Gonzalez (keyboards) and KHS alum Mike Berko (drums) and Alex Siera (guitar) and professionals Vinnie Borselli (trumpet), Pablo Rodriguez (trombone), Duke Lukic (bass) and Willy Carmona (percussion).