HARLINGEN — “You don’t know me! I thought you were different,” sang Ellie Palacios as she practiced her character Nina.
She stomped away from a young man and marched across the stage, her black dress fluttering provocatively while rehearsing for the upcoming production of “In the Heights.”
Suddenly piano rolls broke into the somber scene, sending young dancers into a swarthy festive hysteria, the saucy Latin flavor spinning across the stage.
In the background was the original set sent all the way from Broadway where it has served many productions of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical based on the book by Quiara Elegria Hudes. The work set in the Washington Heights area of New York City has been performed numerous times since 2005. However, this is the inaugural performance of the HCISD Performing Arts Conservatory.
There will be a special showing today for Winter Texans. It will open to the general public this weekend at the HCISD Performing Arts Center and will continue through Nov. 10.
The Conservatory students participating in the event conveyed more than just a casual awareness of its significance.
“This is going to open our seasons for years to come,” said Aaron Blount, 15, a sophomore Conservatory student who plays Daniela.
“I am so honored to be a part of something that is really going to open pathways for a lot of kids,” Aaron said. “It’s going to open audiences’ eyes to a lot of different opportunities.”
Daniela, her character, is struggling as are all the characters in the Hispanic barrio.
“Her salon is, she has to sell it because they’re going bankrupt along with the other businesses in the barrio,” Aaron said. “They’re raising the rents. She’s just having to give up what she’s lived in and worked at for as long as she can remember.”
The numerous subplots of the musical set in the present day weave a colorful tapestry of passions and struggles, of pain and unfettered pleasure, raw anger and joy as free as the wind. All this is woven together by the separate personalities, cultures and dialects of people from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Latin-American locales. The story moves continuously with an almost hypnotic spontaneity.
“What I find most exciting is how we can, being a Hispanic community, we can relate to a lot of the stories and a lot of the issues,” said Director Christopher Esparza. “I think what’s so fun for the kids is that this show has different types of dance styles. It has a lot of Latin hip hop, some salsa, some waltzing, as well as some Cuban steps as well. The kids are loving the challenge and rising to the occasion,”
“In the Heights” isn’t your usual musical, which generally presents an unrealistic rosy picture of life. This show is more gritty.
“The characters themselves, the storyline itself, it’s so in-depth compared to a lot of the other shows we’ve done,” Esparza said. “It deals with real pressing issues, the struggle of living in a barrio, the struggle of not being able to get out, the struggle of failure, the struggle of disappointment. All of these pressing issues that we usually don’t see in a musical are brought out in this one. It’s great because the kids are learning how to act in a dramatic form in a musical. Usually those two really don’t mix.”
The kids on the stage seemed transformed by the electricity which ran through their individual parts, the Latin zeal pulsating through the dancing, the singing, the intense dialogue. They were dressed in the language of the street, for the very clothes spoke a language all their own, the guayaberas, the faded jeans, floppy caps, the sneakers, men all debonair and the women in their alluring dresses. The visual dissonance ran in a sort of perfect harmony with the thumping of a piano’s chaotic chordal progressions. The grimaces, strained smiles and bold bitter humor all worked together for a charismatic and compelling event.
There’s Usnavi, the main character played by Tristan Flores, who owns a corner store and is struggling to leave the barrio. Usnavi is from the Dominican Republic.
“I’m definitely enjoying the style of music that is showcased in the show,” said Tristan, 15, a sophomore Conservatory student.
“We’re tapping into the salsa, meringue,” Tristan said. “Usnavi’s accent is like a Brooklyn mixed with Dominican Republic, what he would tap into when speaking to his grandmother.”
There’s also Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest who is also trying to leave the barrio. And then there’s Abuela Claudia, who is everybody’s grandmother.
Several bratty characters gathered around her, pointed sharply and sang, “You’d better clean this mess!”
And Abuela Claudia, played by Gabriela Garza, 17, sang about her own trials.
“I finally got a job working as a maid,” she sang so eloquently in her smock, poignantly alone on the stage.
“We clean some homes, scrubbing the whole of the upper east side, the days into weeks, the weeks into years, now at 55, my hands begin to shake and as I say these words, my heart’s about to break.”
Gabriela, a senior Conservatory student, seems to have fallen in love with Abuela Claudia.
“She doesn’t have a lot of family biologically that she’s related to,” Gabriela said. “As the years went by she just kind of created her family and had the neighborhood become her family. So she was the grandma of the block. She took care of everyone and really just made everyone really feel like they had a grandma even if they didn’t. So that’s something that I think is beautiful about her.”
Aaron’s enjoying her character, too.
“She’s very vivacious,” Aaron said. “She’s mainly the comic relief of the show. She owns the hair salon in the neighborhood, she knows everybody’s business. She talks the most gossip pretty much. I’m kind of stepping outside of my comfort zone. I usually play the more serious characters but I’m glad to become more versatile.”
It could be said that everyone is stepping out of their comfort zone with this one, but is there a comfort zone? It would hardly seem so, with new academies and new programs constantly popping up, and now the new Conservatory presenting its first of many performances. The Conservatory often hosts guest artists, and Eddy Cavazos came down from New York City to work with the young actors.
“He has a degree in musical theater, but he’s a Valley native from Weslaco,” said Lee Ann Ince, coordinator of fine arts for the Harlingen district.
“We were able to bring him back down and he was guest director on In the Heights,” she said.
The show will also feature a full live orchestra.
The Conservatory’s next show, “Beauty and the Beast,” will open in January.