Pursuit of the American Dream combined with catchy songs and moving rhythms made “In The Heights” at the Benedum theater an outstanding production.
That’s also why Rogelio Douglas Jr., decided to audition for the role of Benny, a worker at Rosario’s Car Service, who dreams of owning his own car business.
“I grew up a young inner- city teen and I considered myself weird because I liked everything from hip-hop to alternative rock and I loved musicals too like ‘Cats’ and ‘Les Miserables.’ I wanted to help bring musical theater to a new generation. That’s what attracted me to the role,” said Douglas, who hails from New York. “I thought of how Benny grew up not knowing his dad too well and I threw myself into the role.”
ROGELIO DOUGLAS JR.
Set in the vibrant neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York, the show tells the story of three days in the lives of immigrants from several Spanish-speaking countries who here in search of a better life for themselves and their families.
“In the Heights” is based on the book by Quiara Alegria Hudes. Music and lyrics for “In The Heights” are by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who played the role of Usnavi on Broadway and garnered numerous awards for his performance.
The main character of Usnavi was played to perfection by Carnegie Mellon graduate Kyle Beltran. Usnavi is the owner of a bodega in Washington Heights and dreams of returning to his homeland of the Dominican Republic. He is in love with Vanessa, played by Sabrina Sloan.
The Rosario Family owns Rosario’s Car Service and their daughter, Nina, is the first one to ever attend college. She is a freshman at Stanford University in California, but returns home during the Fourth of July holiday announcing that she has dropped out of school because of poor grades and low finances. She and Benny fall in love.
Abuela Claudia is the elder of the neighborhood and is the grandmother—in spirit—to everyone who lives there. She looked after Usnavi when his parents passed away.
Daniela is the infectious hair salon owner who is moving out of Washington Heights because of skyrocketing rent. She is moving her salon to the Bronx because her rent keeps going up..
Piragua Guy is the owner of a small piragua stand that competes with Mister Softee. Graffiti Pete is an artist who comes off as a vandal at the beginning of the musical but convinces Usnavi to stay in America by the end of the show.
Douglas joined “In the Heights” in 2007 and worked as a swing for nine roles before landing the coveted role of Benny, which he originated. Prior to joining the cast of “In The Heights,” Douglas played Sebastian, the Crab, in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” on Broadway.
“I knew I could relate to the character of Benny because my grandmother is from Panama and she had to leave her kids and came to America and was a housekeeper. She brought my mom and her other kids over one by one,” said Douglas who considers himself a Black Latino. “My grandmother never got to see me become anything in the flesh. But “In the Heights” is a universal show about a Latino community and its love and hope. The characters are real people that the audience can relate to.”
And relate they did.
While the show has been on Broadway, it recouped its $10 million investment after 10 months on the Great White Way. “In The Heights” won four Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations in 2008. It also won a Grammy award that year for Best Musical Show Album.
“It’s good to go to work and let what I do touch people,” Douglas said. “I am living my dream and I am blessed to get the chance to tell my story every night. You definitely have to bring your A-game.”
And Douglas and the rest of the cast didn’t disappoint.
The 24 musical numbers showcased the singing talent of the cast as well as the talents of composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda. Influences from hip-hop, salsa, and reggae make the songs pop and sizzle just like the residents of Washington Heights.
Musical gems included opening number “In The Heights,” “96,000,” “Sunrise,” “When The Sun Goes Down” and “No Mi Diga.”
In addition, the “In The Heights” Band, which was also an all-minority ensemble, played their butts off during the opening night performance and the ensemble cast had you watch their electrifying dance moves instead of the regular cast during the two-hour show.
Other members of the cast included Graffiti Pete, played by Jose-Luis Lopez; Piragua Guy, David Baida; Abuela Claudia, played by Elise Santora; Carla, played by Genny Lis Padilla; Daniela, played by Isabel Santiago; Kevin, played by Daniel Bolero; Camila, played by Natalie Toro; Sonny was played by Shaun Taylor-Corbett; and Nina was played by Arielle Jacobs. The ensemble cast included Sandy Alvarez, Christina Black, David Baida, Natalie Caruncho, Oscar Cheda, Dewitt Cooper III, Wilkie Ferguson, Dominique Kelley, Rayanne Gonzales, Rebecca Kritzer, April Ortiz and Joseph Morales. Kristina Fernandez and Seth Stewart were the dance captains.
Still riding on its fame, it is currently being made into a feature film to be released later this year.
“The book writer is involved in the screenplay and I’m under contract through November of this year. I hope to get involved in the movie,” Douglas said.
(For more information on Rogelio Douglas Jr., visit his website at www.rogeliodouglasjr.com.)