Love, family, immigrant hopes infuse ‘In the Heights’


Aspiring young immigrants, community, and gentrification infuse the themes of the Broadway musical “In the Heights,” about a mostly Dominican American Washington Heights neighborhood, with its bodega owner narrating the generational characters over a three-day period. After opening at the Richard Rodgers Theater in March 2008, the play hit such an emotional nerve it recouped its $10 million investment in just 10 months. The concept, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and was considered a galvanizing show for its time. 

The cast recording won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album; it went on to become a hit movie, with its songs and dancing drawing from salsa, mambo, hip-hop with rap, all creating a stunning performance tapestry.

Hola! Musical theater fans! It’s playing at The Gateway on March 15 to April 14.

The Advance sat down with lead, Ryan Alvarado, who plays Usnavi de la Vega, the narrator, and director/choreographer Vincent Ortega.

“My role is to shine a light and be a bridge to the actors to tell their story,” Alvarado said recently in Gateway’s lobby. “I point the audience to where they should put their focus. At the end of the day, it’s the story about a Latin community that takes place in the early 2000s, but a lot of our families had similar scenarios.”

Talk about being the perfect fit. Thoughtful and humble, Alvarado played Usnavi at the Portland Center Stage (check out his vibrant “In the Heights” music video with cast members and local scenes) as well as other “In the Heights” roles in various theatres, including Westchester Broadway Theatre. And he was an Alexander Hamilton alternate in the “Hamilton”’s first Broadway national tour, where he met Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“He joined us out in L.A. and is a very special individual. He’s very kind and giving,” Alvarado said admiringly.

This actor—who is Bronx-born, then moved to Brentwood, Long Island, attending middle and high school there—has done Shakespeare.

Like, a lot of it.

“When I went to SUNY Purchase, they didn’t have a musical theater program. But the good part is that they wanted to fill you up with acting tools. I did voice work, lecoq (a dance technique), other classes. With the language specifics in Shakespeare, you have to focus on the stage through all the pieces of the puzzle and learn how to manage it. And you don’t want to lose the audience,” he said. “It serves me well to use all these things.”

You’ve probably seen Alvarado over the years at smaller local theaters; he was a company member at Theater Three in Port Jefferson for three years. “This is my first role at Gateway. It was on my bucket list knowing its pedigree,” he said.

If you were in the audience near or behind director/choreographer Vincent Ortega at a performance of Gateway’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” you probably got into the fun of a TikTok posting announcing his upcoming collaboration before the curtain went up.

“I worked at so many theaters, and we love to do TikTok,” he said of his infectious delivery. “I saw so many repeat customers that night and they were so excited I was now directing and choreographing.”

He’s worn the choreographer hat for The Gateway 11 times, also acting in roles for a total of 15 shows.

His dancing/acting resume includes former choreographer at Netflix, backup dancer for Britany Spears, working with Beyonce’s “On the Run” tour, and teaching audition workshops at Broadway Dance Center. He has met Lin-Manuel Miranda as well. “I worked on ‘Encanto’ for Disney and he was there,” he said.

Would he tweak the show?

A little, he said. “A lot of the dancers have specialty tricks,” he said of what has emerged since the show originally debuted. “And Gateway has higher standards. Also, the dancing in the show is its own character. There’s a meaning behind all the things we’re doing. There’s family, people being pushed out of their community, gentrification, wanting to do things more for your loved ones. It came up today in rehearsal during the song “96,000” (what the characters would do if they won a $96,000 lottery ticket).”

Ortega is Mexican American. His dad was a mariachi singer. “He played the Hollywood Bowl and sang for Gloria Estefan,” Ortega said.

There are 20 in the cast, most Latinos. With its theme, there’s a loving grandmother here, Abuela Claudia, who helps raise Usnavi and others; it’s definitely a family show.

Ortega said he was inserting photos of cast members in the set.

“We’re using the original tour set, but I said we have to revamp the photos with people from the Gateway show. My dad’s photo will be in it,” he said, pulling up a black-and-white image of his father on his phone, a handsome performer. “Dad’s mariachi music will be in there.”


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