Hip-hop and rap collide in exciting Utah county premiere of ‘In the Heights’

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Wille (Usnavi) sits on the porch of his Abuela (Jayne Luke) in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. (Photo by Pete Widtfeldt.)
Wille (Usnavi) sits on the porch of his Abuela (Jayne Luke) in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. (Photo by Pete Widtfeldt.)

The fusion of hip-hop, rap and the message of finding your home blends together in the Utah county premiere of “In the Heights.” The recent Broadway sensation transitions perfectly to the communal setting at Hale Center Theater Orem (HCTO), making for a fun and contagious night of theater that appeals to a broad audience.

“I think the younger audience is going to eat it up,” said Cody Hale, one of the managing directors of Hale Center Theater Orem. “I saw a lady leaving say, ‘I need to get my teenagers out to this; they’ll love it.'”

“In the Heights” won four Tony awards on Broadway in 2008 including best musical and best original score. “Heights” takes place in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, a primarily Latino neighborhood.

The show was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who grew up in Washington Heights. He was working as an English teacher at his former high school when he took what had previously been a college draft of the show to a professional director. In a couple of years they were able to make “In the Heights” a Broadway sensation. Miranda also played the leading role of Usnavi in both the opening and closing of the show on Broadway.

Usanvi (Ben Wille) in front of the mom-and-pop shop that he and his cousin run in the neighborhood of Washington Heights. (Photo by Pete Widtfeldt.)
Usanvi (Ben Wille) in front of the mom-and-pop shop that he and his cousin run in the neighborhood of Washington Heights. (Photo by Pete Widtfeldt.)

In HCTO’s production the role of Usnavi is played by Ben Wille, who brings a charm and sincerity that narrates the production with rhythmic ease. Wille is surrounded by incredible talent, including his wife Xandra, who brings powerful vocals to the role of Nina. The talented cast was led by an equally talented production team including director Christopher Clark.

Clark, who is the chair of the theater department at Utah Valley University, said he had never seen the show before being asked to direct. He found that this helped him approach the show with a fresh perspective.

“I have never directed a show like this before,” said Clark. “There’s nothing quite like it. The more that I worked on the show the more I realized that the themes are universal.”

The themes of home and family are portrayed in every step and every note by a powerful cast that welcomes the audience into their home from the very first number. The show has an expert blend of humor and heartache as audiences watch endearing characters struggle to scrape by.

Several BYU students are involved in the production. One of them, Megan Haley a senior in music dance theater from San Jose, Calif., was grateful to have the opportunity to be part of the cast.

Shae Robins, a former BYU Young Ambassador and plays Usnavi's (Ben Wille) love interest Vanessa in HCTO's production of "In the Heights." (Photo by Pete Widtfeldt.)
Shae Robins, a former BYU Young Ambassador and plays Usnavi’s (Ben Wille) love interest Vanessa in HCTO’s production of “In the Heights.” (Photo by Pete Widtfeldt.)

“It’s so exciting. I’ve loved this show since I saw it on Broadway when in opened in 2008,” Haley said. “I’ve always wanted to be in it.”

Haley said the cast members have grown to become a family. Haley hopes their bond will translate to the stage.

“The show is nonstop fun and dancing,” Haley said. “The music is so infectious and contemporary, it’s not too different from what people are listening to today.”

“In the Heights” runs from Oct. 3 to Nov. 23. Shows are held Monday–Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with Saturday matinees at 3:00 p.m. Tickets can be purchased on the theater’s website at www.haletheater.org/tickets or by calling the box office at 801-226-8600.

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