Milford-based theater presents ‘In The Heights’

Grants allow inner-city teens to tap into performing skills

Aja Bogan-Dennison, choreographer for ‘In the Heights,’ works with the cast during a recent rehearsal in New Haven.

Some of the teenagers involved in the upcoming production of “In the Heights” said if it wasn’t for the five-week drama workshop, they might not be doing much this summer.

But instead of whiling away their summer hours, they are learning the ropes of the theater and perfecting a host of skills, including singing and dancing.

Barbara Alexander, who runs Arts in CT, which is based in Milford and New Haven, secured a grant from the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven and Milford Bank to create this  no-cost camp for teenagers from the greater New Haven area and beyond.

The teens are getting a chance to perform with each other as well as adult cast members from the region, so they’re learning from their director and choreographer, and from the more seasoned community theater actors.

The group has been rehearsing Monday through Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Conte West Hills Magnet School in New Haven, and will soon move their practices to New Haven’s Wilbur Cross High School, where the musical will be performed Aug. 3 and 4.

Aja Bogan-Dennison, the choreographer, said there are about 12 teenagers among the 20-member cast. Ages range from 13 to 62. Some of the younger cast members had some theater experience; others didn’t, she said, but they all bring talent to the stage, and what they lacked, they are gaining through the workshop.

“In The Heights” made its debut in the state of Connecticut in 2005 and then hit Broadway three years later. It is the story of the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, where a young store owner watches the joys and heartbreaks of his tight-knit community as they pass through his bodega.

Winner of four Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Choreography in 2008, “In The Heights” is set over the course of three days, involving characters in the largely Hispanic-American neighborhood.

Bogan-Dennison said she loves the story because it’s based on the Latino community, which is dear to her heart. The cast members had to audition, and Bogan-Dennison said the organizers were looking for a diverse cast, and for performers who were “hungry for it.”

Genesis Reyes is 16 and lives in New Haven and attends Amistad High School.

“It’s like an Hispanic version of Hamilton,” said Genesis, referring to the

Tony Award-winning musical about the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

Genesis sees the summer theater as a great opportunity: If not for this program, she said she’d probably just be sitting home. She expects she will study performing arts in college.

Emmanuel Gonzalez, 15, a student at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, said he saw a social media post about the auditions for “In the Heights.” This was a show he really wanted to do, and he’d heard of Alexander and her Arts in CT — he landed one of the key supporting roles, Sonny.

If not for the theater program, he also said he wouldn’t be doing much this summer.

Steffon Sampson is a 26-year-old seasoned community theater actor from Southington. He has the lead of Usnavi and said he thinks the experience is a great opportunity for those like him to act as mentors to the younger performers.

“And visa versa,” he added.

Alexander, in true multitasking fashion, is directing the show because the director who initially took on the task had to leave. She also manages Arts in CT, attends Albertus Magnus College, and runs various other programs. She and Bogan-Dennison asked the performers if they should try to get a new director after the first director left, but the cast wanted Alexander to take over directing. They love this lady, an accomplished opera singer and theater star who performed in 30 states and four countries. She sings in five different languages and has been featured in notable plays, major films, and commercials.

Still, she considers her biggest and most important role to be as founder and executive director of Arts in CT, a nonprofit she established in recent years in Milford to inspire, enrich and support local Connecticut communities by offering quality arts programs for all.

She sought out the grants for this workshop because she said she wanted to give everyone a chance at theater. “It gave me a chance to open the doors to the entire New Haven community,” she said. “It’s all about community.”

Ilsa Otero-Resto and her husband are raising their children in New Haven, and they are all involved in the production of “In the Heights.” She’s the stage manager, and will probably play the bartender in the club scene.

She said she sees this summer production as one more way to get inner-city kids off the streets.

Faith Fernandes, 30, a substitute teacher in Trumbull, plays the leading role of Vanessa.

She thinks the theater workshop is a great opportunity for the teens, especially because it’s a free opportunity to learn about theater. Similar workshops might cost each of them about $550.

“This gives them a chance to do something they might not get a chance to do,” Fernandes said.

The show will be performed at the Wilbur Cross High School Auditorium, 181 Mitchell Drive, New Haven, on Friday, Aug. 3, and Saturday, Aug. 4, at 7 p.m.

Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children and seniors. Tickets can be purchased online at brownpapertickets.com and artsinct.org/heights.

For more information, contact Arts in CT at 203-936-8567 or [email protected]

 

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