Carrnivale Theatrics is a singular company, the brainchild of Point Park grad Justin Fortunato (director) and Duquesne University alumnus Bob Neumeyer (musical director) offering Pittsburgh a single summertime large-scale musical since "Sweeney Todd" started it all in 2008. "In the Heights," opening Friday at the New Hazlett Theater, follows "Ragtime" (2010), "Into the Woods" (2011) and last year's "Next to Normal" (2012). It's a show that evokes the passion, playfulness and loyalties in a Latino neighborhood in New York. The musical that brought rap to Broadway won four Tonys, including best musical and choreography.
Among the troupers who were there from opening night in March 2008 to close in January 2011 was Tony Chiroldes, an ensemble member who understudied the role of Kevin Rosario, a doting father and business owner, and the Piragua Guy, who strolls through scenes with shaved ice and smiles, in Broadway's "In the Heights." Mr. Chiroldes will play Kevin for Carrnivale, taking time out from his regular gig as a voiceover artist in New York.
He was drawn by the lure of revisiting the show -- and Pittsburgh. Mr. Chiroldes left San Juan, Puerto Rico, to attend Allegheny College in 1980. After finding work in New York, he was cast to play Royal HulaMouse in "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
"I would travel back and forth. ... I did that between 1998 and 2000," the actor recalled. "My first experience of Pittsburgh was coming from Allegheny College to see a midnight showing of 'Rocky Horror Picture Show.' "
His full-time job was doing voiceover work in English and Spanish for commercials, video games, audio books, educational CDs and television programs, including for HBO Sports and specifically, "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel." At least once a year, he looks for opportunities in theater, although being bespectacled and trim and speaking with a slight accent, "I'm not the type," he says of what most people are looking for when casting Latinos. "I'm not the darker, moustached, gun-toting Latino. ... What I always say is, 'I'm the teacher, I'm the priest, I'm the executive. I'm white-collar Latino.' "
Which fits the role of Kevin Rosario, father to Nina, who has returned from Stanford as "In the Heights" begins. On Broadway, Mr. Chiroldes' ensemble role was as a shadowy figure, seen above the stage in the second stories of shops in the Washington Heights street. "I was the dude, if you saw me, I was appearing in every window and balcony. ... I had a fan who called me The Creeper," he recalled with a laugh.
From his perch, he could look down at the action in the businesses below -- Kevin's car service, Usnavi's bodega and the beauty salon where Daniella, Carla and striving Vanessa, the object of Usnavi's affections, hold court.
Vanessa is played by Claire Saunders, a Carnegie Mellon University rising senior. She has worked in regional productions in her native Seattle and Connecticut, but this is her first professional show in Pittsburgh. Her look and her voice put the role of Vanessa right in her wheelhouse, she said, and she connects to the character for other reasons.
"She has this love for where she is. She loves the community and her home, but she strives for something more. This is not the end of her story; she's not going to be here for the rest of her life," Ms. Saunders said. "I think that her constant heart moving forward is something that I connect to. And also I love the fact that she's part of the ensemble, but then she's also getting out and has her own story."
Usnavi (Joe Caruncho Jr.) sees a lot of himself in Vanessa -- striving to move forward, to live a better life -- and he's attracted to her for other reasons. "You can get caught up in her being sexy, but there's a lot of play room in terms of where that comes from and how she gets there and all those moments in between, and I think there's something very beautiful about that," Ms. Saunders said.
"In the Heights" story takes place in the shadows of the George Washington Bridge, in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, where a blackout and a lottery ticket play key roles in the relationships of friends, family and lovers during one hot summer.
The Carrnivale cast of 25 includes actors from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, New York, Florida, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania, and includes 11 ensemble members and five principals who have roots in Pittsburgh (including nine students from Point Park University and five from Carnegie Mellon University).
The company rehearsed at City Theatre on the South Side before moving to the North Side and the more spacious New Hazlett just days before the opening. The biggest challenge for Claire/Vanessa will be a long set piece at a dance club, where she is in and out of the spotlight. "It barrels through," is how Mr. Chiroldes described the number.
"It's a huge set and we're working with a flat set, and that's going to be a whole woooonderful adjustment," Ms. Saunders said, rolling her eyes and smiling. "Usually you get the feeling for the space before the tech rehearsal, but tech will be the first time we get to feel or interact with the real set."
Mr. Chiroldes is having a blast watching the youngsters in the cast as they breathe new life into characters he is very familiar with, but this isn't a carbon copy of the show he did in New York. He and Ms. Saunders said that Mr. Fortunato, Mr. Neumeyer and choreographer Kiesha Lalama are putting their own stamp on the work, with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes and choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, with assists from Joey Dowling and Luis Salgado.
The actor who watched that group put on a Tony-winning show didn't know much about Carrnivale or mentoring Front Porch Productions when he auditioned to play the father figure in "In the Heights."
"I said yes because I love the role, and to start from a clean slate with it is a privilege," he said. "I love the show, I love telling the story, and coming to Pittsburgh, I knew it would be special."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.