Students spice up self-discovery in ‘Heights’
Mynor Pelaez Luken and Marianna Veneri perform in rehearsal for "In the Heights" at Maine East High School. The school is the first in Illinois to stage this award-winning musical about an immigrant community in New York. | Rob Hart~Sun-Times Media
In the Heights
Maine East High School Auditorium
2601 W. Dempster, Park Ridge
March 1, 2, 8, and 9
For ticket information, go to http://east.maine207.org or call (847) 692-8500~.
Updated: April 1, 2013 6:55AM
Home, family, and the search for where one belongs are timeless themes of theater.
Maine East High School adds spice to the journey of self-exploration through its spring production “In the Heights,” a contemporary tale of immigrants singing and salsaing their way through life in New York City.
When the licensing rights for the Tony Award-winning musical became available last spring, Theatre Director Karen Hall jumped on the chance to bring the production to Park Ridge school community.
“I knew it was a message that would speak to these kids,” she said. “We are a melting pot of cultures and that’s what makes this special.”
Set in the Dominican-American Washington Heights neighborhood, the musical depicts the struggles and dreams of characters over a three-day holiday weekend. The vibrant community is on the brink of change and so, too, are many of the characters.
Hall said the upbeat score and hip-hop choreography make “In the Heights” more relatable to today’s youth than, say, “Bye Bye Birdie.”
“It’s very lively,” said senior Brittany Mangurali, of Glenview, who serves as assistant director. “I feel like it will excite the audience a lot.”
Some theatergoers might also find the characters’ mannerisms and lingo to be familiar.
“If you are Hispanic you watch and you’re like, yup, that’s my abuela,” Mangurali said.
Lead actor Mynor Pelaez Luken couldn’t agree more. The musical, the Maine East senior said, “is about my culture.”
U.S.-born Pelaez Luken spent nearly his entire childhood in Guatemala. He moved to Park Ridge with his mother and sister two years ago, at which time the family made the decision to stay.
“It really reminded me of my (home) country and all the traditions that we have,” he said. “I’m excited I get to live that again.”
Pelaez Luken said his peers, no matter their background, could connect with the musical’s characters as they, too, find their way as individuals.
“I think at this age we’re trying to figure out where do we belong,” he said. “It’s important to know where home is.”
Mangurali’s feisty character Daniela, for example, is caught between two worlds when forced to relocate her salon downtown after rent in the neighborhood goes up.
“Even though I’m moving my business, my heart is where I came from, which is Washington Heights,” she explained.
Hall said she relied on students to share their own knowledge and experiences to make the musical numbers and acting appear authentic.
“It meant immersing myself in a culture I’m not totally familiar with,” she acknowledged.
Pelaez Luken and other Hispanic students worked with musical’s cast of 40 actors to perfect their Spanish accents. Maine East alums Kevin and Kyle Familara and Gus Segovia returned to lend their contemporary dance skills.
The result is a show Maine East students can call their own.
“Their chins are (held) just a little higher,” Hall said. “They’re just a little prouder.”