WEST ORANGE, NJ — On Thursday, April 12, the curtain will rise on West Orange High School’s annual musical and a group of student thespians will take the stage to perform “In the Heights,” a show that tells the story of a group of Hispanic-Americans and immigrants living in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Written by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show won four Tony Awards in 2008, including Best Musical. It’s a show WOHS students have been waiting to put on for a few years now.
“I love the show, we’ve been waiting to do this one,” Gabby Florendo, a junior at WOHS, told the West Orange Chronicle at an April 9 dress rehearsal. “Our school fits the dynamic so well. There’s no other school that can get the message across so specifically.”
Florendo plays the character of Nina, a college student whose circumstances force her to drop out of school and she has to go home to Washington Heights to tell her parents. She said she relates to Nina, adding that the diverse student population at WOHS lends itself to the musical.
“Her strength keeps her going, and that impacts my life,” Florendo said. “The show makes me so proud because I’m an immigrant, and it shows there’s always something beautiful in an area you don’t know.”
Theater teacher Wendy Mapes, the show’s director, said that was one of the reasons that the staff chose “In the Heights” this year. In addition to the music working well, the themes of the show are especially relevant.
“We wanted to explore some of the immigration themes, so that lit a fire underneath us,” Mapes told the Chronicle in a phone interview on April 6. “And we have a diverse cast of actors and actresses, and a diverse student body at West Orange High School.”
Julian Adams, a sophomore who is playing the part of Sonny, said that diversity is one of the reasons the musical has resonated with everyone in the cast. Adams listened to the Broadway recording of the music all summer in preparation for his audition.
“We’ve been working for a really long time, everyone fits their part really well,” Adams told the Chronicle at the April 9 dress rehearsal. “Everyone got their part for a reason, even the ones in the ensemble. It makes it look really good.”
Mapes said that the rehearsal process went well, with students enjoying the rap and hip-hop driven music that forms the show. They were also able to hold workshops with a few Broadway performers, including Dwayne Clark, who performed in the Broadway production of “In the Heights” as an ensemble cast member until 2010.
The students are not only performing in the show, but also working on other aspects of it. Mapes said the staff has student assistants working on sets and costume design.
“They’re involved in costume design, and we have students assist with repair and creation,” she said. “You can kind of raid your own closet since it takes place in 2008. The same with the sets, they’ve put in a lot of time to create them.”
Of the 35 students in the show, Mapes said about half want to become professional performers. One is WOHS senior Sophia Torres, a veteran performer who was just accepted to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In the show, Torres plays Abuela, the main character’s grandmother, a familiar role as she played Grandma Rosie in the WOHS production of “The Wedding Singer” when she was in ninth grade.
“I’m used to being old people all the time,” Torres joked with the Chronicle at the April 9 dress rehearsal. “This (show) has been really good, it really pulled together. Kids really understand the message of the show and that’s cool to see.”
Torres’ favorite part of her character is what she symbolizes throughout the show.
“She’s definitely an abuela to everybody, it’s that she symbolizes love,” Torres said of the part. “I love bringing that to life because I’ve never done anything like that.”
Sophomore Indigo Jackson plays Vanessa in the show, a character who works in a hair salon yet yearns for much more. She said that the song “96,000” was one of the first musical theater songs she learned. “In the Heights” has resonated with her both as a listener and a performer.
“This is one of the shows that I can see myself in my character,” Jackson told the Chronicle at the April 9 dress rehearsal. “I don’t feel like I’m playing a character. Usually in a musical you’re playing something that somebody made up, but in this you feel like you’re a part of it and not just watching.”
Torres agreed, saying she feels the same sense of community Jackson described.
“I like the sense of community that the show brings,” she said. “It’s a very strong sense of coming together. It’s something that we enjoy doing.”
“In the Heights” opens at WOHS on Thursday, April 12, at 7 p.m. and will have additional shows at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 13, and Saturday, April 14. The final performance will be Sunday, April 15, at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at www.WOHS.BookTix.com.
Photos by Amanda Valentovic