‘In the Heights’ goes from Broadway to Queen City
by Alison Woo
The American Dream is built on the idea that people can come from anywhere, work hard and become successful. For Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer/actor and celebrated creator of the musical “In the Heights,” that dream was achieved when he wrote about growing up in New York City’s Washington Heights and the mélange of families and people he experienced there.
Call it the West Side Story for this millennium. The Broadway musical “In the Heights” captivated audiences, won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical and became a huge sensation. Now, while the first national touring company of the well-received show is on the road, the show’s original creators are filming the movie version to bring its message to the masses.
Playing a central role in the on stage drama, which is slated to entice audiences at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center next week, is an actress with Carolina ties. Genny Lis Padilla, who spent her formative years in Columbia, S.C, plays Vanessa, a young woman who is the first in her family to go to college. She’s attending Stanford University on a scholarship, but when she comes back to visit the old neighborhood she shares how difficult she finds it assimilating into a much larger world.
Padilla says it’s a role tailor made for her.
“There are lots of similarities I have with the character,” she said on the road touring with “Heights” in Rochester, N.Y. “Both my parents are from Puerto Rico, but I went to middle and high school in Columbia, just down the road from Charlotte. My dad started a dental lab and worked hard to send me to (New York City) where I could study dance and drama. That experience definitely made me not want to disappoint my family and motivated me to keep moving forward and make them proud.”
Relying on a mixture of faith, hope and optimism
The actress had her big break when a casting director saw her during a mock audition at the esteemed New York Academy of Drama, where she was studying, and invited her to audition for the Broadway cast of “Rent.”
“I fell in love with the show and got cast for this huge ensemble piece,” she said. “This was literally the best way to get my feet wet… I got to travel and see so many cities.”
Padilla decided to put some permanent roots in New York City, which was a big shift from her adopted hometown in South Carolina.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she added. “There’s nothing like New York – it’s fast paced and a different beast in and of itself with all different spectrums from all different races and nationalities – but I was coming up from a very calm, all-American high school, I drove to school and there were parades and rallies so it was a bit of a culture shock. But I always knew I wanted to sing, act and dance and this was the place to do it. So why not?”
Starting from scratch
Padilla says the process of putting together the national tour for “Heights” was unique. “When we were hired, the director and choreographer basically said, ‘You’re not getting hired as dancers first; you are getting hired as actors first. Something about you has shone through and convinced us you could play the part,’” she said. “I loved that it was very much seeing us as individuals.”
The actress says it’s those close ties that has led the group to bond.
“We’re very much a family, and all these people have grown up together because we were hired in that mold that it’s inevitable we would fit that mold,” she said. “We love each other and support each other always and it’s been a wonderful experience. Not every cast works this way.”
Just because the story is about one culture and boasts a sizzling score that’s sure to make audience members move their feet to the beat doesn’t mean it has a limited appeal.
“You don’t have to be Latin to enjoy this show,” Padilla said. “A lot of people can relate to the fact of what it takes to start from the beginning and try to make something of their lives. It could be you, or your parents or even your parent’s parents.
“No matter who you are or where you’re from, everyone has a hometown they connect to and people they love. This is a story that lives in everyone’s heart. ”
“In the Heights” will be at the Belk Theatre from Feb. 15 to 20. To purchase tickets or learn more, visit www.blumenthalcenter.org.