A Vibrant Community ‘In the Heights’

Pompeo Mazzella plays the lead, Usnavi, in the Branford High School production of In the Heights, coming to the stage March 20 to 24
Pompeo Mazzella plays the lead, Usnavi, in the Branford High School production of In the Heights, coming to the stage March 20 to 24 Photo by Richard Esposito/The Sound Buy Photo

In the Heights draws back the curtain on a vibrant community in New York's Washington Heights, alive with the rhythm of three generations of music and the struggles and traditions of everyday life.

From the daily drama at the corner bodega to the singing sales pitch of the Piragua guy, during six performances (March 20 to 24) the Branford High School (BHS) stage comes alive with engaging characters populating this Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.

Co-Directors Cathyann Roding and Toni Cartisano are delighted to offer audiences a show featuring a talented student cast and crew, remarkable set, and the infectious music of a live band featuring percussionists, keyboardists, and horns.

"It really sounds like a Salsa band," said Roding, the musical director and choreographer. "They're playing Salsa, Meringue, Mamba- It's every kind of Latin music, but it's got a pop edge."

Rap also weaves its way into this modern musical, delivered in a style Roding describes as "poetic.

"All of the music's brilliantly woven together. People will hear those different styles, and then the ending ties all the themes together, in the last number," she said.

Featured in the last number (and many more) is BHS senior Pompeo Mazzella as the lead character, Usnavi. A four-year veteran of BHS musicals, Mazzella said the show's themes of community and family allow him to share the spotlight.

"I'm rapping, but at the same time, I still get to be with the ensemble. I still get to have that family feel to the whole thing," said Mazzella.

Usnavi is one of 12 featured characters among a cast of 62 BHS students who sing and dance their way through the community. Other featured players include Emma Corbett (as Nina Rosario), Jason Pierre-Louis (Benny), Victoria Marsala (Vanessa), Keregen Shoenherr (Kevin Rosario), Carissa Kamin (Camila Rosario), Kellee Lear (Abuela Claudia), Rob Hardy (Sonny), Marissa Salazar (Daniela), Allie Lemieux (Carla), Dan Frye (Piragua guy), and Cameron Nicholas (Graffiti Pete). See some cast members' thoughts on the show in the "Cast Comments" sidebar on the facing page.

"They are such heartwarming characters," said Roding. "In this show, I think Branford people are going to recognize people, in their own way. The bodega is kind of like going to Common Grounds or Branford Book and Card in the morning. It's kind of interesting, because we also have characters in this town that are always around."

Cartisano added that Heights also has a special Connecticut connection, as it was conceived by creator Lin-Manuel Miranda while he was a sophomore at Wesleyan University. Miranda, who starred as Usnavi during the show's 2008 Broadway debut, also wrote the music and lyrics.

"The music is incredible," said Cartisano, "as is the idea of the immigrant story. Washington Heights is a Spanish barrio, but it could be anybody's immigrant story. The show's so well-written."

Cartisano, who works with the actors to bring about the show's range of emotions, also leads the student crews behind the scenes. She and Roding said they're also indebted to the incredible amount of work put in by parents and volunteers working behind the scenes. One of those areas that audiences will notice: the show's scenery.

"It really is a New York City street corner," said Roding, of the exacting two-story set. Scaled-down brick buildings are anchored by shops under colorful awnings and topped by fire escapes. The cast also makes use of a sweeping central staircase and some custom-built bump-out staging. Above it all, the silhouette of the George Washington Bridge rises, in the heights.

"Everything took a tremendous amount of work," said Cartisano. "These parents are amazing. If we asked them to build a skyscraper, they'd build it."

The combination of the elaborate set, brilliant live Latin music, and exuberant student singers, actors, and dancers is sure to delight audiences out for a bit of Broadway right here in Branford. After 27 years of putting amazing spring musicals on the BHS stage, the co-directors are sure they have another crowd-pleaser with In the Heights.

"If they've liked any show we've ever done, they should trust us," said Roding. "It's really a brilliant show, with kids who are very talented and very rhythmic."

Branford High School's In the Heights tickets are $18 for adults, $15 students/seniors; all seats reserved, call 203-315-7998, ext. 2500 to order. Show times are Wednesday, March 20, Thursday, March 21, and Friday, March 22 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 23 at 1 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 24 at 2 p.m. All shows are at Branford High School, 185 East Main Street. New! Sip, Savor & Save: Get 20 percent off dinner check with show tickets and 5 p.m. reservations at these Branford restaurants: Assaggio 203-483-5426, Gzen 203-208-0443, Home 203-483-5896, Pasta Cosi 203-208-0736, Tacuba 203-208-0736, and Waterhouse 203-208-0423.

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