“In the Heights” hits close to home at Holyoke Community College


Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning first musical “In the Heights” is about home and family in the vibrant Latinx community of New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. This theme is more than just Broadway magic for the Holyoke Community College Theater and Music Department, whose production of the show opened last weekend, Nov. 8-10. The subject hits close to home for a cast drawn from the predominantly Latinx community of Holyoke, which as of the 2010 census has the largest per capita Puerto Rican population in the nation. The cast included HCC students, local high school students, faculty, alumni, community members from the greater Pioneer Valley area and professional dancers.

Director and HCC faculty member Patricia Sandoval FP ’87’s goal was to “invite the community to come and celebrate [Latinx] culture.” With this diverse local cast, she aimed to showcase the talents of a college “which is now a Hispanic-serving institution, which means that our student population is 20 percent [Latinx],” and give visibility to the youth and community of Holyoke. Set around the Fourth of July in Washington Heights, “In the Heights” follows struggling bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (played by Michael Borges from Springfield), his multi-generational family and his colorful neighbors as they navigate love and loss. De la Vega’s Abuela Claudia (Shannon Sarkisian from Holyoke) must decide how to spend her recent lottery winnings and returning college student Nina Rosario (Maya Kirsi from Northampton) how to tell her hard-working parents that she had to drop out of Stanford because she couldn’t keep up while working two jobs. Musical numbers that blend hip-hop, rap and salsa with lyrics in both English and Spanish celebrate the Latin American community while addressing contemporary issues facing urban neighborhoods such as poverty, gentrification and the struggles of immigrants and first-generation college students.

The HCC production dazzles with energy and authenticity thanks to lively group dance and song numbers choreographed by Amherst’s Tiffany Joseph (who also plays Graffiti Pete) and impressive performances from Borges, Kirsi and HCC student Ashley Morris as Vanessa. Particularly impactful are the performances of Holyoke High School students Michael Luciano as Benny, Melina Garcia as Sonny and Adriel Berrios as the “Piragua Guy,” who not only hold their own among older actors but bring life, color and incredible talent to their respective roles. Sandoval invited Holyoke High School students to audition because she “really wanted everyone to be a part of it [but] they were so phenomenal we made them major characters.” She mentioned that the talented Berrios was only fifteen. “When he came to audition we started crying, his voice was so beautiful. We just love him.”

Alberto Sandoval-Sánchez, Mount Holyoke Professor Emeritus of Spanish, was Sandoval’s Spanish professor during her time at Mount Holyoke and served as a consultant on the production as well as a Scholar-in-Residence at HCC this semester. “My function as a scholar-in-residence was in a way to contextualize the musical and to make sure that the characters were in a way true to the representation of [Latinx] communities in this country,” said Sandoval-Sánchez. “It’s such a big production and it worked out. The audiences are thirsty for a story like this.”

“You gotta think about community first,” Sadoval-Sánchez added. “And you know we’re surrounded by all these [Latinx] communities in Springfield, in Hartford, in Worcester, wherever you go there’s a [Latinx] community.” The Massachusetts census showed that 41 percent of Latinx youth and 25 percent of Latinx adults were in poverty, compared to 8 percent for non-Latinx white youth and adults.

Sandoval-Sánchez writes about Latinx theater and performance and helped organize a cultural project and symposium at Mount Holyoke College on “In The Heights,” featuring seven Latinx studies and theater scholars, that will be taking place Nov. 29 and 30. Sándoval-Sanchez will be presenting his talk “Occupying Broadway: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘In the Heights’’ Spectacular Claim to Latina/o Cultural Citizenship” at the symposium on the 29th. Sandoval-Sánchez said he wanted to have this symposium about the musical “because this is Lin-Manuel Miranda! He revolutionized Broadway and changed American culture at large. […] [‘In the Heights’] attracted a new audience to Broadway, and Latina and Latino audiences embraced the project. Everybody was so excited about it,” said Sandoval-Sánchez. “The musical is so important because people don’t know about it, so academically I wanted to have a symposium and invite scholars in [Latinx] studies and Broadway musical studies.”

Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, composed the show’s music and lyrics during his sophomore year at Wesleyan University, drawing inspiration from the book “In the Heights” by Quiara Alegria Hudes and his childhood in the Inwood Section of Manhattan, north of Washington Heights. Miranda’s “In The Heights” premiered in 2005 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, premiered on Broadway in 2008 and went on to win four Tony Awards. “A lot of the show comes out of the theme of home, and what we define as home,” Manuel told Playbill in 2008. He became aware of “how special my neighborhood was when I went to school elsewhere [...] My neighborhood was like a little Latin American country on top of Manhattan. I could go with my grandmother, who spoke no English, to any store. She has never had to learn English.”

During intermission and before and after the performance, audience members could view the “Nuestras Abuelas: ‘Paciencia y Fe’” photography and text exhibition curated by Waleska Santiago Centeno FP ’07 on display in the Lobby of the Leslie Phillips Theater. The exhibition was inspired by the grandmother figure Claudia in “In the Heights,” “the matriarch of the [Latinx] community around which the show revolves,” and was based on interviews, questionnaires and photos from the casts’ three high school students (Luciano, Garcia and Berrios)’s experiences with their grandmothers, according to the exhibition’s program.

“I think one of the most memorable moments in my life was Wednesday morning when the [Holyoke] high school kids were invited to come see the musical,” said Sandoval-Sánchez. “And you know teenagers are teenagers, but they were mesmerized. There was total silence during the first act. They would laugh, but they were just paying attention to everything. And when the first act was over they all started to scream their lungs out. People stopped in from [elsewhere in] the building to see what was going on in the theater. The guard at the college came running and she said ‘I have never seen anything like this.’ So it really impacted a lot of young people to see their stories on a stage and to see so much talent.” Sandoval-Sánchez added, “I know the lyrics, I know what’s coming. But every time I see the production I just go ‘Oh my god, it happened, it happened and it’s a miracle.’” Miranda fan Mackenzie Strum ’20 said “[The show] was very moving, and as someone who has been a fan of the show for quite some time I thought it was a wonderful production.”

“In the Heights” continues this weekend, Nov. 15-17. Showtimes are at 7 p.m. in HCC’s Leslie Phillips Theater. Friday, Nov. 16’s performance will be ASL interpreted. Tickets are $10 for general admission and $8 for students and seniors and can be found online on the Holyoke Community College website and at the door if sold out.