Actors, dancers and set builders are buzzing with excitement at Maine East High School as they prepare to open the musical In the Heights Friday.
It's the first high school in Illinois to produce this Tony Award-winning Broadway show, and only the fifth high school in the country to do so.
The school's theater department is also excited about the fact that the play, telling the tale of immigrants' children trying to make it in America, is also the personal story of so many of the school's students, who came here from dozens of other countries.
Patch.com asked Ed Eubank and Karen Hall of Maine East to fill us in.
You can see the show March 1, 2, 8 or 9 at 7:30 p.m. at Maine East. Details below.
Patch: How is it that Maine East became one of the first high schools in Illinois and the nation to be able to produce this musical? Help us to understand the significance of that.
Ed Eubank, Maine East High School Fine Arts Department Chair:
There has been much anticipation in the theatre community nationwide about when rights for In the Heights would become available for licensing to non-professional theatre ensembles. We received notification on May 11 of last year that licensing rights would be made available for performances beginning January, 2013. That day we made the application to Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization (the sole licensing agent) and were awarded the rights later that month on May 31.
Maine East becomes the first high school in Illinois to stage the show with its March 1 opening and the 5th in the country. The significance? The show won four Tony Awards in 2008 and has stirred a great deal of enthusiasm for its outstanding score, exciting dance and its contemporary take on the musical form, weaving Rap and Hip-Hop into Latin rhythm and dance styles with Broadway-esque melodies. The story about home, family and finding where you belong also holds great attraction and connection for our high school students, themselves a short time away from stepping out on their own.
When a high school has the honor of premiering a blockbuster show (as Maine East did in 2006 with “Cats”), theatre ensembles come from all over the state and beyond to see how we pull it off - the high expectations bring an added excitement and rehearsal focus on the part of the cast, crew and pit. The students and directors sense a great responsibility to do justice to the work of art and make it come alive in a new and unique way.
There are technical “firsts” as well - for example, the giant backdrop displaying the Washington Bridge (an iconic symbol of the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City in which the story is set) was created specifically for Maine East by Grosh Scenic in Los Angeles, Calif. As the backdrop did not exist, we worked with Grosh to design it in a way that works best for our scenic concept.
"In the Heights" is set in Washington Heights, a largely Latino area. Maine East is a tremendously diverse school, but has many other ethnic groups besides Latino groups. How did Latino and non-Latino kids in the cast adapt to that?
Ed Eubank: This is no problem for Maine East students. One of the great qualities of our Maine East student population is their adaptability with the cultures and ethnicities with whom they learn and work each day. Key lines from the title song from the show suggest our approach:
In the heights I hang my flag up on display We came to work and to live and we got a lot in common - It reminds me that I came from miles away
In many ways - these lines symbolize Maine East and when one sits in our auditorium, one is surrounded by 87 flags representing the birth nations of our student body over the past decade. That said, we do include the following statement in the program:
In the Heights is set in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York City. While today the majority of this area’s community is of Hispanic heritage and culture, our wonderfully diverse Maine East cast, of course, is from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. The story of In the Heights though is our focus – it is a story much like all of ours – “Home, Family and Finding Where You Belong.” So, if the production of In the Heights you are about to see tonight features cast members whose race doesn't completely match the characters, we ask that you use that enduring theatrical idea of “suspension of disbelief” and allow yourself to experience the story and not the racial identity of the actors. If the direction and the actors are good (and we think they are!) you will learn the story of In the Heights – and have a great time while you’re at it!
Did the kids "get" the aspects of the play that deal with the immigrant experience? Would you say that had a natural grasp of this, more than perhaps they would if the high school were not so diverse?
Ed Eubank: One of the best qualities about Maine East is the diversity of the student body and because of that, it was incredibly easy for our students to relate to the story of this musical. Many of these kids were born in other countries such as Guatemala, Mongolia, Greece and Bulgaria - to name just a few. That’s why we were so excited to be able to produce this show - because we knew it spoke to who these kids are and where they have come from.
Have you, or any of the directors, seen "In the Heights" on Broadway or in its professional Chicago productions? If so, what impressed you about it?
Karen Hall, Drama Teacher and Director of the show:
Yes, I saw In the Heights on Broadway right after it won the Tony Award for Best Musical. The minute I saw it - I thought of our students. I knew they would love its music, its dance styles - both Latin and Hip-Hop - and its message. It was just a highly charged and fun two hours of theatre. And I knew instantly that when the amateur rights became available that we should be performing this amazing show.
Does this show have more extensive dance numbers than other shows produced at Maine East?
Karen Hall: I wouldn’t say more extensive. We tend to choose musicals with a lot of dance numbers because the students at Maine East love to dance. What sets this show apart from traditional musicals is the style of dance that is in the show. It is a mash-up of Hip-Hop and Latin styles - and the cast has been having a blast working on these numbers.
How was the decision made to bring in Maine East alums as choreographers?
Ed Eubank: In The Heights’ choreography is largely from Hip-Hop and Latin dance styles. Class of 2007 graduates Kyle and Kevin Familara and Gus Segovia were well-known at Maine East for their exceptional dance skills, particularly in the style of Hip-Hop. Today they are busy performers and noted dance instructors. To introduce Maine East students to the unique Hip-Hop style of the show, we invited the three of them (close friends and great collaborators) to hold two evening dance workshops. The energy of these workshops and their skill and passion as dance teachers made them the obvious choice to invite them back to choreograph the whole show.
Karen Hall: Their hip hop skills are phenomenal. They’re creative, they collaborate well together, and they bring a lot of things to the table that I couldn’t.
How is the set being designed and constructed?
Ed Eubank: In the fall Ms. Hall and Ms. Buczek began to discuss the “artistic vision” for the show. In the Heights requires specific locations and other than a few small pieces, does not move. We collaborated in creating a space that was artistically beautiful and functional for 40 cast members.
The stage crew is made up of 19 freshman thru seniors who dedicate their time every day after school and most Saturdays. Ms. Buczek divided the crew into five groups representing the five major locations of the set design. Each group was responsible for the building, painting, and decorating of each location.
Those working on the show include:
- Choreography by KEVIN FAMILARA, KYLE FAMILARA & GUSTAVO SEGOVIA
- Orchestra Conducted by PAMELA D. S. HOLT
- Vocal Direction by JULIE A. CROSSEN
- Scenic Design and Technical Direction by JESSICA N. BUCZEK
- Lighting Design by KEVIN HOLLY
- Costumes by KIMBERLY G. MORRIS
- Assistant Director VERONICA LYNN
IF YOU GO
Showtimes: Friday, March 1, Saturday March 1, Friday March 8, Saturday March 9, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $10. (847) 692-8500 or east.maine207.org.
Location: Maine East High School Auditorium, 2601 W. Dempster, Park Ridge (at Potter Road).