CMU grad's dream comes true 'In the Heights'
Elise Santora plays Abuela Claudia and Kyle Beltran is Usnavi in the national tour of "In the Heights," which will open Tuesday in the Benedum Center.
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A bottle of champagne welcomed Kyle Beltran to "In the Heights" and the role originated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the Tony-winning musical.
It happened onstage, and it wasn't a gift during the encore.
Mr. Beltran, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon, plays Usnavi in the company that comes to Pittsburgh Tuesday. The tour started in October in Tampa, and it was on the second night,
with reviewers in attendance, that bubbly put the actor in a bind.
"I got to the song in the second act called 'Champagne,' where Usnavi tries to literally and proverbially uncork the champagne bottle to his relationship with Vanessa, who he's in love with, so he has to get the bottle opened," Mr. Beltran explained. "Well, I'm trying to get the champagne bottle opened, and it explodes. And I don't mean just pops, I mean one of those cross-the-room kind of corks, and there's champagne all over, and I had to on the spot rewrite the lyrics [to incorporate the moment].
- Where: PNC Broadway Across America -- Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
- When: Tues. through next Sun.; 7:30 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat. and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun.
- Tickets: $22-$66; pgharts.org or 412-456-6666.
"That was really cool because in a moment of terror, I was able to think really quickly; sort of divine inspiration from Lin. ... It somehow was sort of permission for me to create this on my own."
Mr. Beltran grew up in New York City and was attending CMU when he began chasing his dream around this time last year. He found an unexpected connection with the show's director, Thomas Kail, whose mother grew up on Beechwood Boulevard and whose uncle and grandmother still live in the city.
"It's a strange, very fun coincidence to both have a history with the city of Pittsburgh," Mr. Beltran said by phone, before a performance in Boston. "And Tommy, in addition to being a wonderful director, is quite the comedian, and so he makes cracks all the time about Pittsburgh and how he knows it better than I do."
It wasn't long before Mr. Kail recognized Mr. Beltran's connection to the key role of Usnavi, who runs a bodega in the mostly Latino Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan and serves as "our interlocuter, our Tevye."
"He welcomes us to the community and we watch the story unfold," the director said. "We needed someone we could ride along with, and Kyle allows you immediately to hook in and invest in him."
Usnavi and his neighbors are chasing their dreams -- he longs to leave the Heights for his parents' homeland, the Dominican Republic. Then there's Vanessa, who longs for a downtown apartment; Benny, who dreams of running his own car service; and his love interest, Nina, the darling of the neighborhood who is coping with college. They are just a few of the characters who swirl through the story, within the close-knit embrace of family and friends. A lottery ticket worth $96,000 becomes part of the equation; not a huge sum by some standards, but perhaps an open door to a new life.
In the song "96,000," Usnavi and company are interrupted with nonsense from a neighborhood character, Graffiti Pete. Usnavi tells him, "Shut up, go home and pull your damn pants up!" -- long before "Pants on the Ground" became a viral hit.
Mr. Beltran, who is half Puerto Rican, said the positive representation of Latinos and his admiration for Mr. Miranda's achievement were the chief reasons he pursued the role, campaigning for and winning an appointment apart from the open cast call.
Mr. Kail noted that Mr. Beltran was well trained at CMU and had other intangible qualities.
"One of the things about Usnavi is he has to have the spirit of a fighter, this irrepressible joy and this love of language, and Kyle has that inherently," the director said. "He walked into the room and had this boundless energy and this desire to be better. ... It's been really wonderful watching him grow and evolve and lead this journey in different cities, and I know he is just bubbling over with excitement to bring it to Pittsburgh."
"In the Heights" has occupied Mr. Kail's life since 2002. Talking by cell phone from an Amtrak train to Boston, where he and Tony-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler were headed to help add a new cast member to the company, he said, "I always joke about it that Lin gave birth to this baby and I helped raise it with a lot of other people. As we spent the time developing and building up the story and filling out the folks who populate the world, it gave us a lot of great insights that helped us home in on what we were looking for in terms of not replacing people but trying to find essential characteristics and essential qualities for the [tour] cast."
Among those qualities is the ability to shift between styles, both in the exuberant Latin and contemporary dances and the songs, which range from rap to pop to Latino to a more traditional Broadway sound.
"It was sort of very serendipitous because right after I went in for the first time for 'In the Heights,' I booked a musical at the Old Globe in San Diego called 'Kingdom' that also had a lot of rapping, sort of a pop-rock-rap hybrid," Mr. Beltran related. "And that was sort of my first show with a serious amount of rap. So it's amazing how experiences sort of prepare you for the things that come next."
He had the technique and experience, and the rest, well, "I'm a 23-year-old guy. I listen to hip-hop and I'm half Puerto Rican, so those Latino sounds are familiar to me. So it's a beautiful coming together of all the things in my life."
When Mr. Beltran and the rest of the touring company were in place for its final run-through in New York, 25 of 27 original Broadway cast members were on hand to see them off.
Mr. Kail called it "one of the really great moments of all my time with 'In the Heights,' " and Mr. Beltran said he hardly had words to describe the amount of support he felt at that moment.
"They made it such a priority to be there, because we're all trying to tell the story," Mr. Kail said. "And it was really pretty phenomenal to me to stand in a circle with 55 people all committed to doing the same thing. The alternate worlds sort of collided there, but in a very beautiful way."
Now that he has a few months of "In the Heights" under his belt, Mr. Beltran said he can't wait to come back to "my 'hood in Pittsburgh, Shadyside," for breakfast at Pamela's, a Harris Grill frozen margarita and a return to CMU, where he will do a Q&A with freshmen and talk about the business of theater with seniors.
"I used to joke with all my classmates about being really successful and coming back in 10 years and doing our master class. So in this amazing twist of fate, I'm coming back a lot earlier than I though I would," Mr. Beltran said.
"It's great to be in that position because I remember what it was like just a matter of months ago, to need that kind of inspiration, to realize that you can achieve your dreams, it's within reach, and CMU does provide all the skill you need. If you can combine that skill with heart and generosity and honesty, you can really go far."
That last bit sounds a lot like something Usnavi might say.
First Published January 31, 2010 12:00 am