Lyons Township High School spices up ‘In the Heights’ with salsa, hip-hop

It will be hard for audience members to sit still for Lyons Township High School’s production of “In the Heights,” which opens Feb. 13.

An energetic cast and a hit parade of hip-hop and salsa numbers will have listeners trying to dance in their seats for the 2005 musical set in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City.

“The kids love the music to the point where they did a lot of the research for the show on their own,” said music teacher John Musick, serving as musical director and pit conductor.

The 2008 Tony-award winning music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda feature complex rhythms, syncopation and multiple voices with competing, yet complementary melodies.

“It’s like a cacophony, a challenge to have each voice heard,” Musick said. “The transitions are a challenge as well, going from singing to rapping. It’s very eclectic. I love it.”

Four professional musicians will join students in the pit on keyboard and wind instruments, including a trombonist who toured nationally with the show.

“The benefit is that the kids will get a sense of playing in a professional orchestra,” Musick said.

Students also benefitted from a master class presented by Luis Salgado, the principal Latin dancer and choreographer for the original show.

That connection came about because director and LT English teacher Eugene O’Reilly knocked on the stage door for an autograph following a 2008 Broadway performance.

“I just wanted to meet Lin-Manuel Miranda and tell him how moved I was. I asked him when his show would be available for high schools,” O’Reilly said. “I also met Luis Salgado and asked if he would come to my school and teach a class.”

Five years later, Salgado accepted as part of his efforts to promote the arts in diverse communities.

“That four-hour seminar was an insanely amazing experience for the kids,” O’Reilly said.

La Grange sophomore Carlina Green, the assistant director, said Salgado could have just focused on dance steps.

“But he took it further to help us realize the essence of the show as community, culture and passion. He told us some of the history behind the dance moves, and that helped bring the emotion forward.”

Physical education teacher and choreographer Terry Wethington said he also enlisted the expertise of a fellow dance teacher at the Maine Township high schools and two LT student choreographers, sophomore Maddie Schaeffer and junior Claire Sullivan.

“It’s all about networking in the arts,” Wethington said. “And this show is about connections and community. Abuela is at the center of the story and brings back the traditions and culture to the borough. People learn to respect it and change it.”

Everyone dances in the 34-member cast, except Abuela, the grandmotherly matriarch of the neighborhood, and the goal is spontaneity, Wethington said.

“It’s supposed to look like it’s happening in the streets, more of a party than a production,” he said. “So we try to give a lot of freedom to the dancers, to hit certain accents here and there and let them fill in the rest.”

La Grange freshman Katie Westrick said she enjoys her role as Sonny, the younger cousin of Usnavi, the lead who runs a small corner store at the heart of the neighborhood.

“He’s more of a rebel, and that’s really fun to get angry,” Westrick said. “He’s the youngest in the neighborhood and not taken very seriously.”

The cast is led by LaGrange Highlands junior Christopher Fonseca, who never misses a syllable on lengthy rap segments, and his eventual girlfriend, junior Samantha Cohen of Burr Ridge as Vanessa.

The musical also features senior Erin Blaber of Indian Head Park as Abuela Claudia, senior Cara Mia Cicciarelli of La Grange as Nina Rosario and La Grange senior Dione Goree as Nina’s boyfriend, Benny.

When you go Performances: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 13, 14, 15; 3 p.m. Feb. 16 Venue: Reber Center, 100 S. Brainard Ave, La Grange Cost: $10 for adults, $5 children, seniors and LT students with an ID Tickets: Available a half hour before performances