News Column

The Miami Herald Christine Dolen column

October 17, 2013


Oct. 17--Andy Senor Jr., Henry Gainza, Janet Dacal and Alex Lacamoire, four Miami talents who have made it big in the cutthroat world of New York theater, have been friends for years.

Lacamoire, the Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical director and co-orchestrator of the Broadway smash In the Heights, was a New World School of the Arts high school piano star when he accompanied the Miami Coral Park Senior High cast of Godspell at a statewide theater festival in Tampa. In that cast were Senor, Gainza, Danny Pino (now a regular on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), Pino's future wife, Lily Bernal, actress Tessie Santiago and actor-turned-publicist Phillip Aleman.

From that long-ago connection, dreams were born, and one of them comes to fruition at 8 p.m. Saturday with Viva Broadway, the high-profile kickoff event for the new District Stage Company.

"That success with Godspell was incredible for us. It propelled us into taking theater more seriously," says Senor, who played Angel in Rent on Broadway and on tour. "Everything has been going well for me. Yet I thought, 'I have pockets full of gold, but I'm not sharing it.' "

Hence, District Stage Company, a troupe with Miami-centric plans that extend way beyond its splashy kickoff.

Viva Broadway is the first event funded by a Knight Arts Challenge Grant awarded to the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center for an initiative called Bring It Home Miami aimed at reconnecting established artists to their home community. And the one-night-only Viva Broadway event certainly does that.

With direction by Heidi Miami Marshall (yes, that's the Broadway and film director's real name) and musical direction by Lacamoire, the show features Tony Award winner Karen Olivo, Nina Lafarga, Jose-Luis Lopez, Eliseo Roman, Dacal, Gainza and Senor, with special guest Jon Secada. Woven into the fabric of an evening built around the theme of home are 14 Miami-Dade high school performers who won their roles through a New York-style audition.

Those young performers are Diana Valcarcel and Estephanie Cardenas of John A. Ferguson Senior High; Maria Bilbao and Hannah Schreer of Coral Reef Senior High; James Burgin, Elis Chirino and Maria Paula Gonzalez of New World; Austin Napoles, John Mazuelos, Natalie Torres, Christopher Rodriguez and Giovanni Tisera of Miami Killian Senior High; Jeanfranco Cardentey of Felix Varela Senior High and Isabel Signaret of Palmer Trinity.

Giving those aspiring talents a chance to sing alongside Broadway veterans is very much a part of District Stage Company's mission.

"They're seeing that we're working professionals and it's possible to come from Miami and build a career. ... It's creating community off the bat," Senor says. "We picked 14 kids, unique individuals that we designed the show around. We're celebrating them."

Says Gainza, "When I was in high school, if I'd been told I'd be in a show with anyone who'd been on Broadway, I would have been beside myself."

The Viva Broadway program includes scenes plus dance and musical numbers, among them Senor in Enjoy the Trip from the musical Bring It On, Gainza in Maria and Secada in Somewhere from West Side Story, Secada and Dacal in You're the One That I Want from Grease, Dacal in Gloria Estefan's Mi Tierra and Dacal and Olivo -- both of whom appeared in In the Heights on Broadway -- singing the beauty-shop gossip song No Me Diga with several high school singers.

Saturday night's performance is the first step toward making District Stage a permanent part of Miami's theatrical landscape. Senor says the company, which is working on not-for-profit status and a website, is looking for a 450- to 600-seat theater space along Biscayne Boulevard or in Wynwood to call home.

Company members are looking for backers to buy into the vision of a troupe that would bring far-flung Miami talent home to work and inspire younger performers. District Stage is also in talks with a well-known New York company to create an ongoing relationship to showcase projects and productions.

"We intend to be a regional theater company here. We'll do plays, musicals. ... We want to discover new writers, commission new works relevant to the Miami community or do existing shows in a new way, like producing Next to Normal with a Haitian family," Senor says.

The actor says the company hopes to spark a buzz about Miami's performing arts in general and theater in particular, as well as to energize and expand the local audience.

Adds Gainza: "We're not looking to compete with other theaters. Our hope is to help raise the level of theater throughout the region, to make a family of theaters."

Senor's friends and collaborators very much buy into the vision of working in Miami. Dacal, Lafarga and Gainza appeared in the Actors' Playhouse production of In the Heights, and Dacal starred in the two-character musical The Last Five Years there last season. Gainza will perform in the world premiere of Daniel Mate's theatrical song cycle The Longing and the Short of It at Delray Beach's Theatre at Arts Garage Nov. 1-24.

But Viva Broadway is the first Miami gig since New York beckoned for the busy Lacamoire, who is working on the new Peter Pan musical Fly and In the Heights creator Lin-Manuel Miranda's The Hamilton Mixtape.

"I got my start in Miami. The things I learned there, the teachers I had, were super important ... and the passing on of knowledge is so important," he says. "We followed our dreams and put ourselves full force into something we wanted to achieve."

Dacal, who is focusing on breaking into film and television work in Los Angeles, is only too happy to come home for Viva Broadway and the beginnings of District Stage Company.

"Why wouldn't I? It's everybody I love, my dearest friends. We've come together to create this alliance, and to see it starting at this level is so exciting," she says.

"Our intention is to create something wonderful for the community and give back the way it has given to us ....Our intention is to forge a creative force here."


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