Dallas — This year marks the 60th anniversary of Junior Players, making it the oldest nonprofit youth theater organization in Dallas. Originally founded simply to present children’s theater productions, since 1989 the group has served Dallas’ youth through free arts education programs in local recreation centers, low-income communities as well as through social service agencies assisting at-risk youth. And Junior Players continues to bring new players to the block. The recent production of In the Heights marked their first collaboration with Theatre Three and their debut performance at the Dallas City Performance Hall.
The production of the Tony Award-winning musical reflects many of the elements that continue to make Junior Players relevant and influential throughout the Metroplex. Young adults from more than 10 different area high schools brought impressive talents to a piece that offers an excellent showcase for the actors, dancers and singers.
The score for In the Heights is challenging, packed curtain-to-curtain with hip-hop, salsa and traditional Broadway numbers. And while a few songs tested the strength of the young actors’ voices, overall they acquitted themselves beautifully, supported by an excellent live orchestra.
Directed by Bruce R. Coleman, the production uses the abundant energy and enthusiasm of his cast to propel the show forward. The story captures the intersection of music, food, culture and the complex social structure that characterize life in the crowded barrio of Washington Heights, perched at the top of Manhattan. Here Abuela Claudia (beautifully voiced by Natalia Botello), the neighborhood matriarch, dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic but not until she sees a proper future for bodega owner Usnavi, a man she raised after his parents died.
Usnavi (Jose Ocampo III) was named after the words his parents read on a U.S. Navy ship when they reached America. Ocampo is a true find. He handles rapid fire rap lyrics with grace and ease. Seemingly balanced on the balls of his feet, he lithely shifts his energy from moment to moment. Ocampo has a maturity that lends credence to his portrayal of a man who’s been struggling to make his tiny store profitable for years.
Usnavi loves Vanessa (Raquel Moctezuma), who longs only to get out of the neighborhood and move downtown. Moctezuma has a sweet singing voice and a lovely awareness as she gradually realizes Usnavi’s feelings. Meanwhile hometown heroine Nina Rosario (Maya Quetzali) has returned to the hood carrying a shameful secret. Her discomfort is lightened by a growing interest in childhood friend Benny, the dispatcher at her parent’s car service, but the adults are determined to keep them apart. Carlos Romero and Malley Morales as Nina’s parents have some excellent moments here, and there’s palpable chemistry between Nina and Benny (Wesley Johnson), poised performers who provide a strong through line for the action of the play. Stifling heat, a power outage and a winning lottery ticket all add to the tension around the thwarted love stories.
The dance and vocal ensembles are tight and well rehearsed by choreographer Rebecca McDonald and music director John Norine, Jr. There is a fairly simplistic loose-end wrapping-up to the show might cause some cynics to sneer, but In the Heights offers a vibrant tribute to the diverse neighborhood it portrays. It’s an auspicious debut from the pros at Theatre Three and the Performance Hall, enabling the exuberant young cast to enchant. Junior Players has once again proven why they play such an important part in our neighborhoods, from downtown Dallas to the northern reaches of McKinney and beyond.