Hip-hop musical to take WBT stage, with a Broadway assist
Director John Fanelli and actress Arielle Jacobs pose above the Westchester Broadway Theatre lobby last week, as they prepare to begin rehearsals for “In the Heights.” Jacobs played Nina on the national tour and on Broadway. Photo by Joe Larese/The Journal News.
Arielle Jacobs has a history with “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning salsa and hip-hop musical that comes to Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford next month.
Jacobs played Nina — the girl whose success is a beacon in her Washington Heights neighborhood — in the first national tour and was the last actress to play Nina on Broadway, when the show closed two years ago this week.
Andy Blankenbuehler, who won a 2008 Tony Award for his “In the Heights” choreography, has a history with Westchester Broadway Theatre.
It’s where he earned the Equity card that made him a professional actor, in a production of “A Chorus Line” directed by Rob Marshall, an Oscar-nominee for directing “Chicago,” assisted by his sister, Kathleen Marshall, who went on to win three Tonys for choreography (“Anything Goes,” “Wonderful Town,” “The Pajama Game”).
Their histories will combine in the near future at the dinner theater in Elmsford, where “In the Heights” will run Feb. 7 to March 17, a production of John Fanelli’s newly minted Standing Ovation Studios.
Jacobs will reprise her role as Nina and Blankenbuehler will consult with choreographer Morgan Marcell, who will transpose Blakenbuehler’s original dance moves onto the challenging confines of the WBT stage, where the audience occupies seats on three sides of the stage.
This is the second February that Fanelli — and Ardsley native who now lives in the other heights, Yorktown Heights — has taken over the dinner-theater stage. Last year, it was “Big River,” the Roger Miller musical setting for “Huckleberry Finn.”
This year, the banjo is replaced by a salsa beat, for “In the Heights,” a heart-warming musical that is in many ways a Latin cousin to the show that is now on stage in Elmsford: “Fiddler on the Roof.” Both shows are about dreams and community and heritage. While “Fiddler” is set in 1905 Russia, “In the Heights” is set in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. The milkman Tevye gives way to Usnavi, whose bodega is the neighborhood’s meeting place.
Jacobs, a bright shining penny of an actress, was on the road with the show for months before the tour rolled into Los Angeles, and Miranda — who created the role of Usnavi — joined the production.
“He is a force of nature, but being on stage with him wasn’t as intimidating as being off-stage with him,” she says with a laugh. “Being myself around him made me nervous. I knew that when I do the show, it’s reacting to him in character, using the words he gave me. Off-stage, I got a little nervous, but he’s so much fun to be around.”
Miranda must have liked what he heard and saw. Before long, Jacobs was called to Broadway to replace “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks and finish the show’s run. The final few weeks, Miranda played Usnavi to Jacobs’ Nina.
The actress says she’ll bring that history to the WBT stage, in a way.
“What I found doing it so many months will still be there,” she says, “but being open to new actors, a new space, a different staging process will make it different. I want to stick with what I found and the groundedness that I found in doing the show for so long, but I want to be open to how that might change. I want it to change.”
Fanelli says he understands that “In the Heights” is a risky proposition at a venue that features more traditional fare such as “Fiddler.”
“It’s very risky,” the director says, “but I think it’s something this community needs to see. It’s something new and exciting and it has all the traditional values of a regular Broadway musical, but it’s contemporary. The music is so incredible.”
Fanelli says he’ll bring the music right into the audience, using the aisles to expand the stage even farther.
This season on Broadway, Blankenbuehler directed and choreographed “Bring It On,” a cheerleading musical with music and lyrics by Miranda and Westchester’s Tom Kitt, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for “Next to Normal.” He also choreographed the current Broadway revival of “Annie.”
Andy Blankenbuehler watches a rehearsal of the original company of “In the Heights.” Photo courtesy Andy Blankenbuehler.
He says returning to the WBT stage will be a stretch of a sort. He has consciously avoided regional productions of “In the Heights.”
“I can’t even watch YouTube videos,” he says with a laugh. “I feel like things are taken so out of context and are done for the wrong reasons. That’s why it’s important for me — even if I don’t get to be at a lot of rehearsals — to put my two cents in so people understand where things are coming from.”
He predicts he’ll come to Elmsford when the show is up on its feet, but before it’s running.
“That way, there’s a little bit of time to make some changes, but mostly the show is in its order already,” he says. “I’m sure the dancing will look great, but it’s the little subtleties that make the lyrics resonate differently.”
Jacobs knows precisely what Blankenbuehler is talking about. A raised arm with palms up, she demonstrates, has a different meaning than a raised arm with palms down.
“I take pride in being a choreographer who follows story very specifically and that guides me,” says Blankenbuehler. “I don’t think movement first; I really think music first. And one of the great things about Lin’s music is that he writes from a rhythmic place, where everything moves forward together.”
“When I first heard demo’s of the show, before I was hired to do it, I was really moved by the unexpected nature of the show and the lyrics, but also that it was very real. When lyrics happened, I believed them.”
Fanelli says he has been struck by how protective and nurturing those involved with the original production are about “In the Heights.”
There‘s a reason for that, Blankenbuehler says.
“The core of the show was about people’s ownership, about ethnic ownership, about being validated, about belonging” and about family,” he says. “For everybody involved in that original production, it was a very personal experience. We’ve all done shows in the business where everybody is a mercenary, a hired hand, just a job. For ‘In the Heights,’ it was a passion project for everybody.
“As Lin always says, where have the Latino people been represented in the theater? As thugs and gangsters, in non-realistic, non-heart-based situations. It was important for everybody in the show to push forward all those positive ideas.”
More: Andy Blankenbuehler recalls lessons from Rob Marshall about working on the WBT stage here.
“In the Heights,” a Standing Ovation Studios presentation, Thursdays through Sunday matinees and evenings, Feb. 7 to March 17. $59, including a served three-course meal. $20 student rush show-only tickets available 15 minutes before the curtain. 914-592-2222. www.intheheightswestchester.com