News Column

'In the Heights' goes for top-notch storytelling [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]

August 22, 2013


Carrnivale Theatrics returns Aug. 23 for its fifth-annual production with "In the Heights."

The show, which won the 2008 Tony for best musical, follows the lives of three generations of people living in Washington Heights, a diverse neighborhood of immigrants from Latin American and the Caribbean nations that is near the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan.

Lin-Manuel Miranda conceived the musical during his sophomore year of college and also wrote the score for this show that employs the sound and beats of both rap and Latino, as well as more traditional musical-theater harmonics.

"It's not rap as you might hear on the radio. It's storytelling. The rap in the show doesn't detract from the storytelling. It enhances it," says Justin Fortunato, the artistic director and one of the founders of Carrnivale Theatrics.

The score may represent the ethnicities of the most recent waves of immigrants, but their stories, their dreams and their struggles are not unlike those of earlier Irish, Jewish or Italian immigrants, says Fortunato, who also is directing the production.

"It's about leaving your country and making your new country your own," he says.

Fortunato saw the national touring production at the Benedum Center on a snowy night in 2010 with an audience that ranged from older couples to people with children, he recalls.

"Halfway through Act 1, they broke into a spontaneous standing ovation. It spoke to all ages and ethnicities. It was not just able to connect to Latinos and African-Americans," Fortunato says. "What drove me to it was the energy I felt in the audience."

Since its founding in 2009, Carnivale Theatrics has always produced challenging shows. After its debut with Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" in 2009, the company has performed "Ragtime," "Into the Woods" and "Next to Normal."

But "In the Heights" may be even bigger and more challenging.

The show will use the full 13-piece orchestration. "It's a beautiful cultural score with a beautiful horn section," Fortunato says.

He also has hired Kiesha Lalama to create all-new choreography for the production.

"Kiesha is very good at storytelling. It's not just really good choreography. It (shows) where (the characters) are going and why they break into dance rather than just walking."

Casting the show's 23 characters in Pittsburgh was a bit of a challenge.

As a Pittsburgh-based actor, Fortunato would have preferred to completely cast the Equity contract show from the area's talent pool. But after auditioning more than 100 actors in Pittsburgh, Fortunato completed casting in New York City, where he saw another 200 performers before filling the final five roles.

"But the cool thing is a lot of them have Pittsburgh roots," Fortunato says.

Local scene designer Tony Ferrieri is creating the set.

"It's the biggest set we've ever had," Fortunato says. "This show is about realism and feeling all the things (the characters) talk about. It's important to me to have a set for actors to feel like they are in a bodega."

Fortunato envisions a streetscape set that resembles an actual block in Washington Heights, complete with a real fire hydrant and 31-foot-tall buildings.

"It's a spectacle without hydraulics and animal heads," Fortunato says. "There's no disaster, no villain in a mustache. It's about things that happen to people, no matter the culture."

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

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