News Column

UTEP Dinner Theatre Presents 'In the Heights'

July 5, 2013

Doug Pullen

The Tony Award-winning musical "In the Heights" may be set in a modern Dominican-American neighborhood in New York, but the director of its El Paso premiere believes local audiences can relate.

"It's a community that mirrors ours," said Patricia Provencio, who is directing the UTEP Dinner Theatre production that opens a three-weekend run tonight.

Even though the "Heights" neighborhood is filled with people of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, the dinner theater's longtime music director doesn't feel the need to localize the show, which won four Tony Awards, including best musical and best score, in 2008.

"This truly is an Hispanic neighborhood. (It) refers to Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and Mexicans and Cubans. It

covers everybody," said Provencio, solo directing for the company for the first time. "There's no need to localize it; it's perfect."

"In the Heights" features big production numbers, songs and dialogue in English and Spanish, and music and dance styles ranging from salsa to hip-hop.

It's a slice-of-life musical that chronicles three consecutive days in the lives of more than a dozen people in a Washington Heights barrio. They include a bodega owner named Usnavi, who doubles as the show's narrator; his wise abuela, Claudia; and his love interest, Vanessa, who works at a hair salon.

They're anything but Hollywood -- or Broadway -- stereotypes, Provencio said.

"I think it's the first contemporary Hispanic (Broadway)

musical. I keep telling people that ... you've got a musical that has no gangs, nobody gets killed, nobody is in prison that killed somebody," she said.

Seven years in the making, "In the Heights" features music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a New Yorker with Puerto Rican blood, who played Usnavi, the show's rapping and dancing narrator, on Broadway. The book is by Quiara Alegria Hudes, also of Puerto Rican descent.

It centers on Usnavi, whose name is a contraction of "U.S. Navy," and his struggling convenience store, where he works with his cousin, Sonny, and interacts with just about everyone else in the neighborhood, including Nina, torn between her modest home life and studies at faraway Stanford University, and her love interest, Benny, who is suddenly put in charge of Nina's parents' taxi service.

The action revolves around a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000 sold at Usnavi's store. Thematic threads from the first act -- set in motion in production numbers such as "In the Heights" and "96,000" -- weave together in unexpected ways in the second act.

"It's a touching story," said Provencio, who saw it on Broadway with her husband, actor-director Frank Montes de Oca III, and jumped at the

chance to direct it for UTEP Dinner Theatre founder and artistic director Greg Taylor.

"When I saw it in New York for the first time ... I came out thinking this was a perfect show for El Paso," Taylor said. "It not only won best musical, which is good, and best score, which is good, but it's also very Latino and there are very few Latino musicals out there."

Pulling off such a musically and physically demanding show hasn't been easy for Provencio, her 28-member cast and her 17-member crew. It's been especially challenging for her husband, Montes de Oca, who plays Usnavi but didn't have a background in hip-hop music.

"It was certainly a very different role, as is the show, than most I've ever seen or done," he said. "To be honest with you, the show is a lot more involved and difficult to attack then I think most people, including ourselves, realized in the beginning."

It helps that they have a Tony-winning score to follow. "It's just like learning a song. You have to get everything to fit into the right place, then think about how to act it and what to do physically. It has to happen in layers," said Provencio, who believes this is the first UTEP Dinner Theatre musical to include rap.

Montes de Oca studied several rappers, including Latinos such as Big Pun (Usnavi's favorite) and Pitbull. He wanted to master the cadence and movement for a more credible performance.

"The hardest part is being able to spill out all those words at one time. It's like a moving train," he said. "I found it to be very challenging to try to be true to the fact that you've got to have a certain sound when doing it."

Rap music is only part of a show that incorporates various kinds of Latin music and dance. Still, dinner theater staff worry its inclusion may alienate some of its core audience. They hope that their traditional audience will approach "In the Heights" with an open mind, and that younger audiences who don't typically attend its shows will give it a try. Clips from the show are posted on YouTube.

"You listen to the music and get so caught up in it," Montes de Oca said. "The music is so beautiful and empowering. It gets you excited. It gets you moving."

Doug Pullen may be reached at dpullen@elpasotimes.com; 546-6397. Read Pullen My Blog at elpasotimes.com/blogs. Follow him on Twitter @dougpullen and on Facebook at facebook.com/dougpulleneptimes.

Make plans

-- What: "In the Heights."

-- When: Today through July 21. Performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 1:30 p.m. Sunday; and 2:30 p.m. (with no meal served)"July 14 and 21.

-- Where:"UTEP"Dinner Theatre, Union Building West, Room 209.

-- How much: Full-price tickets cost $45 for Fridays and Saturday evenings, $40 for weekdays and matinees, $26 for non-meal performances. Discounts are available for children, military, non-UTEP"students, groups, and UTEP faculty, staff, students and Alumni Association members. Tickets are sold at the door; at the UTEP Ticket Center; and through Ticketmaster outlets, ticketmaster.com and 800-745-3000.

-- Information: 747-6060, academics.utep.edu/udt.

-- Also: No children younger than 3. Because of construction on campus, UTEP Dinner Theatre management suggests patrons park at the liberal arts, education and Union buildings.

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