When it comes to entertainment, some of the most important aspects, such as attitude and mood, cannot be taught, instead they can only occur naturally. Such is the case of professionalism, something CAPA's "In the Heights" is anything but shy of. At a Creative and Performing Arts Magnet School, CAPA students carry the burden of high expectation as soon as they step on stage, but the group seems all the more empowered as a result.
What benefits high school students in a more modern show like "In the Heights" is the obvious increase in comfort level: from the summer time wardrobe like costumes to the youthful interactions of fleeting love to dramatizing issues still facing the nation. More understanding and better interpretation is thus had across the cast.
The setting of Washington Heights is an old time ethnic neighborhood of New York City, primarily composed of Dominican Americans. Preserving culture is important to the youthful group the story focuses on, as most are among the first generation of their families to be raised in America.
In such a group of actors, it takes a lot to be a standout, but many of the seniors show their work as theater and vocal majors was successful. The show opens and closes with Angelo Ragghianti as Usnavi De La Vega, a young corner shop owner who is just trying to get by "In the Heights." He dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, a place he only knew as a child as his parents immigrated as he was a child, naming him after the US Navy. Ragghianti handles this unconventional musical role with ease -- rapping naturally and keeping a mature grasp on his emotions.
Drew Praskovich provides refreshing comedic relief in the role of Usnavi's partner Sonny. Praskovich charms the crowd as he stumbles through the Heights. Both bodega shop workers find their biggest challenge in their pursuit of women. As the scenes pass Usnavi sees his relationship with the popular Vanessa warm up just like the un-air conditioned July day. Though a dance major, Rehima Jordan nails the sensual singing style of Vanessa.
A second side of the plot introduces Nina Rosario, played by Saige Smith, who has just returned from Stanford. She is welcomed back by
her old friends but has the misfortune of informing her parents that she has dropped out of school. Further conflict arises between her and her entrepreneurial parents when she falls in love with Benny, a boy working under her father. Smith manages to dance the fine line between showing emotions and not overdoing it -- something that many of the others can't manage.
What adds to the conflict are the economic struggles felt by all they as they dream of winning "96,000" in the heat of the summer. While the practiced cast understands these implications what is more impressive is Dominican dialect adopted by all of the leads.
The guiding force for all the young people of Washington Heights resides in Abuela Claudia. Senior Michala Williams adopts this role, and though it would normal present many obstacles for someone just in high school, her advice of "Paciencia y Fe" (patience and faith) impacts the crowd beyond the theater.
The resolution provides not an ideally happy ending, but a satisfying one. A new dose of challenges will exist in the future. With the $96,000 that Abuela Claudia won and left to Usnavi and Sonny, they plan to stay "In the Heights." The newly strengthened Nina will return to Stanford and Benny will follow along. The realistic nature of the musical is enlightening and teaches views about a world not so far from home.
Though it works with just one set, "In the Heights" is far from an easy show to put on. With the double plot line and the necessary dialects, CAPA's strength is in its supporting ensemble. The ensemble's high intensity work reminds the audience how the strong use of dance can present the overall mood.
Above all, the CAPA program undersells its cast when it titles its theater program 'CAPABILL." It is easy to forget that this advanced group is putting on a high school level performance as they go above and beyond "In the Heights."
"In the Heights" ran April 18-28.
The Kelly Critics is a joint program of the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh CLO's Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musicals, in which students at Kelly schools review musicals at other Kelly schools. Reviews are edited by senior theater critic Christopher Rawson.