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“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

By Spotlight Central

originally published: 03/18/2017

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC


We take our seats in the modern and inviting Vogel Auditorium at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal, NJ on Friday, March 10, 2017, looking foward to experiencing a dress rehearsal of one of our favorite musicals, In the Heights.

Winner of four Tony Awards and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album, when it appeared on Broadway in 2008, In the Heights put Lin Manuel Miranda — its composer and star performer — on the map. Having written its original draft as a college sophomore at Wesleyan, Miranda has gone on to work on such projects as Broadway’s Bring it On: The Musical and the Disney animated feature, Moana.

Oh, and he also created and starred in a little show called Hamilton, which won eleven 2016 Tony Awards, in addition to a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Working with Lin Manuel Miranda on the original Broadway production of In the Heights — both as a cast member and as an assistant choreographer — was Luis Salgado.

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Salgado, 36, was born in Puerto Rico, where he was bitten by the acting bug at the age of ten. He studied drama at the University of Puerto Rico before making his way to New York City. There, he acted in such Off-Broadway productions as Fame, danced in films like Across the Universe and American Gangster, and worked as an assistant choreographer on Disney’s Enchanted.

These days, Salgado is a highly-sought-after director and choreographer.

Andrew De Prisco, Artistic Director at Axelrod PAC and co-producer of In the Heights, says that securing Salgado to direct and choreograph their production was a stroke of luck. Salgado’s name was mentioned as someone who might be able to recommend a top-notch director/choreographer for Axelrod to pursue; never in De Prisco’s wildest dreams, however, did he think Salgado would be interested in taking the job himself.

But Salgado is a man who is “committed to making ‘art with a purpose.’”

Thus, for him, In the Heights “is a story that must be told at this moment when many are being forced to question their belonging in our society.” For Salgado, this play is not only a vehicle in which he can examine such concepts as “belonging” and “accepting one’s HOME” — it is also a production in which he is free to search for “the truth of an ensemble” and “the truth of a community.”

Which makes Salgado’s work with Axelrod PAC such a perfect fit.

Explains Jess Levy, CEO of Axelrod PAC and co-producer of In the Heights, Axelrod’s mission is to provide “diverse high level cultural programs that engage the community,” not just by presenting programs, but by “creating and producing their own works” which often feature members of the community. As such, for their production of In the Heights, auditions were held locally — as well as in NYC — to find just the right company to cast.

Moreover, according to Levy, in accordance with the theater’s mission, a number of area high school theater arts groups have been invited to experience the show’s dress rehearsal tonight.

As students from Shore Regional, Neptune, Keyport, Manalapan/Marlboro and Long Branch high schools take their seats in the impressive Vogel Auditorium, co-producer Andrew De Prisco welcomes the audience and introduces them to director/choreographer Luis Salgado.

Salgado takes the stage to explain to the many students in the audience that the story of In the Heights shows the “inner passion” of the people who constitute a neighborhood, saying, “This is your story. In it, you’ll see family, belonging, and art.” At this final dress rehearsal, he also announces, “The cast now has the opportunity to take full ownership of their work with you — our first audience,” going on to remind them that “it takes a village to do the things we love.”

At this point, the houselights dim, and the cast and crew of Salgado’s In The Heights go on to present an inspiring performance, full of raw emotion, and hitting all the high spots.


As the stage lights rise, we meet Usnavi (Jonathan Mousset), who opens his bodega and introduces us to his family—Abuela Claudia, the woman who raised him after his parents passed away, and Sonny, his cousin who helps him out at the store.

As Usnavi raps out a high energy version of the show’s brilliant seven-minute-and-39-second opening number, “In the Heights,” we’re introduced to Usnavi’s love interest, Vanessa, and we also learn about his dream to one day leave the barrio and return to his parents’ homeland, the Dominican Republic.

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

Usnavi’s friend, Nina (Elizabeth Ritacco), returns home to Washington Heights from her first year at Stanford. In an emotional performance of “Breathe,” we learn that Nina is afraid to tell her parents she’s been forced to drop out of college.

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

While Nina’s parents seek a loan to keep their taxi business afloat, they leave their employee, Benny (Jordan J. Adams), in charge of the service. When Nina arrives to see her parents, she’s instead entertained by Benny as he lights up the stage with his exhuberant performance of “Benny’s Dispatch.”

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

After revealing she doesn’t have enough money to pay her bills, Vanessa (Laura Lebrón) dazzles the crowd with an exceptional vocal performance in “It Won’t Be Long Now,” expressing her dream of escaping Washington Heights.

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

Usnavi manages to work up the courage to ask Vanessa out on a date and she accepts.

In the meantime, Nina tells her parents she’s lost her scholarship and has quit school. Her father, Kevin, is devastated because he cannot afford to help her with tuition. In yet another of many highlights which make up this poignant production, José Fernando Cappellan, as Kevin, tugs at the audience’s heartstrings, communicating his feelings of love and determination for his family in “Inútil.”

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

After the confrontation with her parents, Nina seeks solace from Vanessa at the hair salon but instead, the owner, Daniela (Tanya De León) sits her down for a makeover and gossip session. In their delightful and humorous musical number, “No Me Diga,” Vanessa, Nina, Carla (Danelle Rivera), and Daniela pull out all the stops, much to the audience’s delight.

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

Daniela laments that due to a rent increase, she’ll need to move her hair salon to the Bronx. Meanwhile, the entire Washington Heights community is motivated to share their dreams after learning that someone has purchased a $96,000 winning lottery ticket from Usnavi’s bodega.

Usnavi, Benny, Sonny (Matthew Oster), Vanessa, Daniela, Carla, and the entire company perform a kinetic anthem of hope and possibilities in their explosive rendition of “96,000.”

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

Abuela Claudia (Maite Uzal) reflects on the difficulties she’s faced her entire life after immigrating from Cuba to New York, remembering her mother’s words, “Patience and Faith.” Following a compelling version of “Paciencia y Fe,” Abuela Claudia discloses that she is the one who has purchased the winning lottery ticket.

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

Nina and Benny reveal to one another their experiences feeling like outsiders — Nina, while at Stanford, and Benny, as an African-American working for Nina’s parents in the barrio. At this point, the childhood friends take a tour of neighborhood landmarks in a playful and bouncy performance of “When You’re Home.”

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

As the neighborhood stores close for the evening, Piragua Guy (Robert Araujo) charms the crowd as he sells flavored ice while singing his catchy tune, “Piragua.”

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

At Nina’s house, Kevin announces that he’s sold his taxi business to pay for Nina’s tuition. His wife, Camila, is furious about his decision, as is Benny, who is now out of a job.

Nina follows Benny to a club to apologize, but he’s still angry. Vanessa and Usnavi are also at the club, but are separated in the darkness when the power suddenly goes out. Following the company’s lights-out version of “Blackout,” Nina and Benny manage to find each other amongst the chaos and kiss, as fireworks explode overhead.

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

The next morning, we see Benny and Nina on the fire escape after spending the night together. In a tender moment, the couple performs an enchanting version of “Sunrise.”

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

Usnavi wakes up to discover his bodega has been looted. Abuela Claudia convinces Usnavi they should use her lottery winnings to relocate to the Dominican Republic. Singing together the quixotic, “Hundreds of Stories,” Usnavi agrees.

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

After spending the night searching for his daughter and finding out she was with Benny, Kevin vows that Benny will never become a part of his family. In a dynamic performance of “Enough,” Shadia Fairuz as Kevin’s wife, Camila, tells both Nina and Kevin they must always keep the family together.

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

Despite the extreme heat, at high noon, the people of Washington Heights decide to hold one last celebration before the bodega, salon, and taxi service close their doors forever. In this brilliantly-staged number, Daniela and company blow the roof off the theater with their electric performance of “Carnaval Del Barrio.”

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

But then what happens?

Do Usnavi and Abuela Claudia use the $96,000 in lottery winnings to live happily ever after in the Dominican Republic?

Does Vanessa move out of the barrio to her dream apartment?

Does Nina accept her father’s sacrifice and return to school?

And what happens to Benny and Nina’s relationship?

And what about Usnavi and Vanessa’s budding romance?

These questions and more are answered in Axelrod’s presentation of In the Heights which has performances on Mar. 18 at 2pm and 8pm, Mar. 19 at 3pm, Mar. 25 at 8pm, and Mar. 26 at 3pm at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center, located at 100 Grant Avenue in Deal Park, NJ.


Following their March 10 dress rehearsal, director and choreographer Luis Salgado and the entire cast of In the Heights take a few moments to answer questions from the enthusiastic crowd.

Telling the audience, “I want to hear your voices,” Luis and company talk about the “hardest part” of putting this production together. Salgado — a loving father who happens to be holding his sleeping two-year-old child in his arms while speaking — not only reveals that “today’s rehearsal went from 12 noon to 10 pm” but also goes on to note, “it was an emotional roller coaster.”

Other cast members get involved in the question and answer session as well.

When asked where he got the inspiration for his character, Kevin, actor José Fernando Capellan reveals that it was his Latino heritage which enabled him to understand that “for Latinos, family comes first.” States Capellan, “You do the hard work and you spend time with your family. Family and education is first in life.”

Jordan J. Adams, who plays Benny, tells the aspiring actors in the crowd that individuality is the key to being successful on stage, explaining, “You can never be anybody else” and “nobody can ever do you like you can do you.”

Echoing these words, Salgado adds that as an original member of In the Heights on Broadway, he learned “not to imitate.” Warning “you can contribute more to your character than watching someone else do it on YouTube,” he suggests that aspiring actors “just play,” urging, “you’re never too old to play!” He also reminds the future thespians in the house, “you have to own what you do with your character.”

Joomin Hwang impressed many folks in the house tonight with his outstanding break dancing performance as Graffiti Pete. When asked where he “got his moves,” Hwang, who “came to this country from Korea 3 1/2 years ago,” puts smiles on the faces of the crowd when he confesses he “learned how to break dance by watching VHS videos in slow motion.”

After the Q&A, we have an opportunity to chat with several members of the audience about tonight’s ambitious production of In the Heights.

Says Shayna from Clifton, “I liked the connection between the characters. They made it seem like these people really grew up together in the barrio and they really knew each other.”

Shayna’s mom, Yrma, agrees, adding, “I loved the part of the Grandma. I could relate to her because the actress made her seem so real.”

And Lexy, a student from Long Branch, exclaims, “This show was amazing — even more than I expected. I got ideas from seeing this. There was so much positive energy on stage. It was just amazing!”

We also chat with several members of the cast.

Elizabeth Ritacco, who plays Nina, reveals, “This was unlike any experience I’ve ever had. I don’t know if it is the show or what, but I’ve never felt closer to a group of people. In this cast, everyone brings his or her ‘A game’ to the stage for every performance.”

Nathalia Raigosa, a member of the ensemble who originally hails from Columbia, says, “This show is amazing. The cast is very talented and the director cares a lot. In the process, everyone was given an opportunity to develop his or her character as a part of the whole story. Finding that ‘person to be’ was a challenge, but I was able to because, as our director, Luis Salgado, always says, ‘There’s no furniture on stage. Everyone is important.’”

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

Finally, we chat with the man whose vision of In the Heights is so passionately brought to life here on stage at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center — director/choreographer Luis Salgado.

Acknowledging this is his “first time working in New Jersey,” Salgado tells us how much he appreciates the spirit of cooperation and sense of camaraderie which prevail here at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal. He further discloses how much he “loves how this beautiful space provides a wonderful home for young actors to be challenged.”

After all, concludes Luis with a smile, “Theater = Community.”

“Theater = Community.” In the Heights LIVE! at Axelrod PAC

Performances of Axelrod’s PAC’s production of In the Heights take place on Mar. 18 at 2 pm and 8 pm, Mar. 19 at 3 pm, Mar. 25 at 8 pm, and Mar. 26 at 3 pm at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center, 100 Grant Avenue in Deal Park, NJ. For further information and/or tickets please go to or call 732–531–9106.

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