Upper Upper West Side Story

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Cabrera, Ramirez, Reyes, Holquin, Valverde, and Fernandez after yesterday's performance. Photos: Tim Murphy


New York's Jeremy McCarter loved In the Heights, a new musical at 37 Arts, and he's not the only one. At an all-high-school matinee organized by the Theater Development Fund yesterday, a packed house of almost entirely black and Latino teens from Washington Heights screamed and stomped wildly through the show, which weaves hip-hop, salsa, and old-fashioned storytelling into a nouveau–West Side Story tale of love, loss, dreams, and change in the gentrifying-but-still-mostly-Dominican Heights. The kids went crazy from the first (rapped) mention of the D.R., and they stayed entranced through the electrifying dance sequence at the end of Act One to the hysteria-inducing moment when hunky heartthrob Christopher Jackson (who plays limo dispatcher Benny) sauntered onstage for a raucous audience Q&A after the show. It was quite a scene to take in, like being in the audience for the very first B'nai Brith night at Fiddler. After the talkback, we asked six audience members — all Heights residents, all seniors at the neighborhood's International High School of Business and Finance — how the show stacked up against their hood.

BRAULIO CABRERA, 18 (aspires to business management or a reggaeton career)
Rate the show’s realism on a scale of one to ten. An eight. All the dancing and excitement usually doesn’t happen. People just keep to themselves. You don’t break in song and dance on an average day? No. What’s the last musical you saw? This is my first one. What character is most like you? Vanessa [a salon worker who wants to leave the Heights forever], ’cause my mom used to have a salon in the D.R., and I used to help her out there. Too much sex in this show or not enough? Just about right.

ALEJANDRO RAMIREZ, 18 (wants to move to Miami “because I’m Cuban and all my family’s there”)
First of all, you’re rocking fierce hair. It’s the fashion. Who inspired it? Brad Pitt. Rate the realism of the show. Like, nine. The clothes aren’t realistic. Too sexy. But I guess it’s [taking place in] summer. Do people in the Heights break out in song and dance in the street? Yeah. Latin people are very happy in life. What’s better, musical theater or hip-hop? Both. It depends on my mood.

ANNY REYES, 16 (aspiring biologist waiting to hear if she got into Columbia)
How realistic is the show? I’ll give it a seven to eight. The Heights is mostly Dominican. Nina’s family [in the show, which is Puerto Rican] should have been Dominican. Which character are you most like? Nina [who’s about to drop out of Stanford because her family can’t afford it]. Columbia is very expensive, and my mother is single and isn’t going to be able to pay it. But I want to make her proud. Last musical you saw? Disney on Ice. This was more realistic. Is the Heights gentrifying? I’m seeing a lot of people that I usually see downtown. But I still feel like I’m home. Do you wish the blancos would stay out? [Laughs.] We took over this place and feel like it belongs to us, so it’s comfortable seeing people from other places.

SUHAYDE HOLQUIN, 17 (waiting to hear from SUNY Binghamton and CUNY)
How realistic? Eight. Almost all the characters end up happy, and that’s not true. A lot of people get out of the Heights and pursue their dreams, but not most of them. Do you want to get out of the Heights? I want to come back to visit, but I don’t want to live there. What’s the last musical you saw? This is the first one. I identified with a lot of the characters. Who did you identify with the most? Nina. I don’t know if I should go away for college. Hottest cast member? The guy who does the graffiti paintings. Did you like his abs? [Laughs.] Yeah!

ERNESTO VALVERDE, 18 (aspiring sports reporter, waiting to hear from Fordham)
Realism scale? Eight or nine. The stage was great. That corner is Cabrini and 181st. What character are you most like? Usnavi. He might be kind of wild, but he still has his head on straight. That’s me. I’ll act crazy, but I have goals. Who in the cast would you date? There’s two dancers. I think you know which ones. I don’t. Are they girls or boys? Girls, of course! Do you think the Heights is changing? New people are moving in, and the rent is getting more expensive. Do you resent it? Half yeah and half no. As long as it’s able to keep its roots. What’s the best food up there? Caridad on 193rd near the East River.

LUIS FERNANDEZ, 17 (wants to go to Northeastern to be civil engineer or lawyer)
How realistic? I’d give it a six. We’re mostly Dominican in the Heights. The writer should know that if he’s from there. Puerto Ricans are in the Bronx. Who has better food, Puerto Ricans or Dominicans? I like my food. My rice and beans. Are they really that different from Puerto Rican rice and beans? Our moms cook better. —Tim Murphy