Broadway comes to Miami with “In the Heights”

From superheroes to fairytale characters to historical figures, actors and actresses often experience the thrill of playing fascinating people. But, talented triple threat Sarah Amengual gets to tackle the challenge of portraying perhaps the most intriguing, admirable person of all: a college student.

Amengual stars as Nina, a remarkably ambitious Stanford University freshman in “In the Heights”, a high-energy musical playing until April 7 at the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables, Fla.

“It’s very much traditional musical theater as far as storytelling goes,” said Amengual.  “You have a narrator, you have different types of lovers and you have the parents. The music is all very appropriate to the age of the characters. The younger characters rap, the older characters sing more traditional songs.”

The ensemble cast of “In the Heights” reaches extreme highs and lows, both musically and emotionally, in telling the struggles and triumphs of a tightknit community in Washington Heights, a largely Dominican-America neighborhood of New York City.

Amengual describes her character as “the one who’s trying to make it out of the neighborhood.”

“She’s the one that everyone in the neighborhood is proud of,” said Amengual. “They expect great things of her because she’s great at school, she’s on the honor roll, she’s class valedictorian — that kind of person. She puts a lot of pressure on herself to do well in college. She has all these high aspirations for herself because she’s used to being the best at everything she does.”

The show’s original production played at a college; Singer, writer and actor Lin-Manual Miranda wrote the first draft in 1999, during his sophomore year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.  After a regional production and an off-Broadway run, the show opened on Broadway in March 2008 and played for nearly three years, earning four Tony Awards. It’s spawn a national tour, along with regional and international productions.

The Actors’ Playhouse version builds on the show’s history, bringing together members of the original Broadway and National tour casts with local talent for a theatrical melting pot of sorts, filled with the spices of salsa, the intensity of emotional ballads and the energizing beats of rap.

“We try to stay very true to the Broadway and national tour structure,” said Amengual. “We have the dance captain from the original Broadway production acting as our choreographer and replicating the original choreography.”

Amengual grew up in Plantation, Fla. and graduated from the University of Miami in 2010. She made her Broadway debut in Sept. 2010 as Maria in “West Side Story” and starred in “Next to Normal” at the Actors’ Playhouse last year. She attributes the success of “In the Heights” to its wide appeal.

“It appeals to the traditional musical theater crowd because it has a very familiar feel, but it’s expanded upon that. It’s relevant to other patrons, to people who might not usually come to musical theater,” she said. “It’s the story that’s true of the younger generation, but it’s also the story of the older generation and their struggles.”

Amengual thinks its Latin twist will especially charm Miami audiences.

“I hope that the Latin audience out there take a chance and comes to it, because it’s their story. There’s not a lot of musicals written about the Latinos. So, it attracts an audience that will see themselves up on stage,” she said.  “The abuela [grandmother] of the neighborhood sings a song about her struggles and immigration and what life was like when she first came to New York. Sure, this is Miami, not New York, but it’s still relevant.”

Amenqual thinks that all audience members will find the show’s vibrant community familiar, whether their home is on Sesame Street, Abbey Road or Hollywood Boulevard.

“Doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is, doesn’t matter where you come from, you have the same people in every neighborhood,” she said. “You have the young kids that are troublemakers and pranksters. You have the parents that are struggling about what to do with their daughter. You have the kids who have been best friends and have grown up together and now are dating. And you have the grandmother that takes care of everybody. That’s in every neighborhood.”

And Amengual clearly adores her South Florida home, as she affectionately calls bringing a taste of Broadway to Miracle Mile “so wonderful.”

“I grew up in South Florida and theater has obviously always been such an important part of my life,” she said. “It’s so hard in these times, with the economy being what it is, the arts takes a beating. So it’s wonderful that the theater is still thriving and able to put out a production of this magnitude. We need the arts. We need theater. We need to support it.”

For aspiring actors or actresses, who are more than happy to support theater but are weary of rejection, Amenqual said that confidence is key.

“Know that you are who you are, you bring what you bring and you’re special,” she said. “Think of every audition as an opportunity to perform; it’s not a test. And enjoy what you’re doing. Because the moment the self-doubt creeps in and it’s not fun, it’s not worth it. It’s too hard if it’s not fun.”

Theater geeks or theater novices can join in on the fun of “In the Heights” by calling The Actors’ Playhouse box office at 305-444-9293.

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