Whatever you do, don’t miss Vashon High School’s musical “In the Heights,” which continues its run this weekend and next.
It’s the best musical I’ve ever seen at the high school: There’s great acting and singing, a beautiful set and lighting, lively choreography and a tight orchestra playing a pulsing score inspired by hip hop, salsa and other urban music.
The show itself is a gem — a splendid choice made by VHS principal Susan Hanson and drama teacher Stephen Floyd. This 2008 Tony Award winner for best musical is a true ensemble show, filled with juicy roles that let the cast of more than 20 teens shine.
The show takes place in Washington Heights, a ragtag and yet rapidly gentrifying barrio of Manhattan. Most of the characters who live there dream of something better. But their lives in their community are already full and rich, and they don’t even realize it.
There’s Usnavi (played with percussive conviction by Tanner Montague), a rapping grocery story owner who dreams of returning to his homeland, the Dominican Republic. He’s in love with Vanessa (exceptionally played and sung by Maya McTighe), a hairdresser who just wants to move to the hip West Village. Nina, an endearingly vulnerable character played beautifully by Emma Hennessey, is also the most ambitious girl on the block. She returns to the ’hood with a secret: She’s dropped out of college.
Her parents (played in a solid performance by Alec Spencer and a show-stopping one by Hailey Quakenbush) are aghast, but luckily, Nina too finds love and encouragement waiting in the wings, in the person of Benny, a cab dispatcher who seems out of place in the neighborhood because he doesn’t speak Spanish.
Benny is played by senior Luke Webster in my single favorite performance of the night. He lights up the stage, delivering a marvelously nuanced, sensitive and completely compelling portrayal of his character.
Directors Hanson and Floyd have done so much right with this production and at every turn emphasized honesty over artifice. For instance, only one of the performers (Mara Burns, playing a sassy hairdresser) speaks with a Latino accent, and hers is good enough to stand in for everyone else in the show, reminding the audience in a subtly perfect way that this is a show about Latino characters.
But in a broader sense, it’s about everyone who has ever lived in a special place and time. It’s about the comfort of being home and the thrill of living in the moment.
And this moment, in the history of Vashon High School, is something extra special. “In the Heights” is the last show that Hanson will direct at VHS. She’s retiring next spring. It’s the last show her husband, architect Craig Hanson, will design in tandem with his principal wife. And talk about going out in style: Neither of them has ever made the old Vashon High School theater look better, or filled it with so much magic.
That’s appropriate too, because next year, the high school will boast a new theater. The old one, much maligned by many in our drama and music community, is coming down. But I for one will miss some of its ragtag, homespun charms. So many beautiful stories have played out on its stage. “In the Heights” — a musical about how communities can thrive even in the most humble surroundings — is a perfect coda to this rich and colorful history.
“In the Heights” will be performed this Friday through Sunday, and March 22, 23 and 24. Friday and Saturday shows are at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday is Rotary Night; all tickets are $20. Regular performances are $15 for adults and $12 for students; matinees are $12 general. Tickets can be purchased in advance at the high school office or at the Vashon Bookshop.