Starcatcher scales the heights

The Israeli premiere of the Broadway sensation 'In the Heights' opens next week.

By YAKIR FELDMAN
February 22, 2019 07:42
Starcatcher scales the heights

One of Broadway’s most in-demand attractions from 2008 to 2011– logging more than 1,200 packed performances – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s highly acclaimed ‘In the Heights’ is set to appear on an Israeli stage for the first time in Jerusalem next week. Above: The Starcatcher cast radiates charisma at Safra . (photo credit: YONA KAPLAN)

 
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Lin-Manuel Miranda is a phenomenon. His legendary Broadway hit musical, Hamilton, got an overwhelming, exuberant critical reception, achieved record-breaking advance box office sales and won the most Tony nominations (16) of any play in history.

Not only that, but Miranda stars in the Oscar-nominated motion picture Mary Poppins Returns. A talented guy – and then some.

Unless you have connections at the highest level, you can forget about copping tickets to Hamilton, but fortunately you can now do the next best thing (and, in some ways, even better) – hurry to Jerusalem’s Hirsch Theater to experience the Israeli premiere of Miranda’s In the Heights, being brought to life by the Starcatcher theater group.

BEFORE CREATING Hamilton and the Disney movie Moana, Miranda wrote the music and lyrics for In the Heights. Like Hamilton, In the Heights was a sensation on Broadway and a phenomenal success. It was nominated for 13 Tony awards, and won four of them, including the 2008 Best Musical and Best Original Score awards.

Exploring a few key summer days in the lives of characters in a Latino neighborhood of New York City’s Washington Heights and driven by a diverse and dynamic score of Latin-accented music and clever lyrics, the play draws us into the lives of immigrant youths trying to find their places and make their ways in a new world – their hopes, challenges, loves and dreams. The ensuing uplifting, energetic and heartfelt scenes unravel a beautiful story surrounding a proud community and its historically rich culture and integration into American society.

Jeff Rosenschein, the show’s musical director, said, “From a musical perspective, the impact on Broadway of In the Heights was nothing short of revolutionary. By incorporating new types of music that hadn’t yet made the transformation to the Great White Way – such as rap and hip-hop – Lin-Manuel Miranda completely rewrote the script, or in this case the score, on what musical theater could be. Accompanied by a live band, our ambitious version of In the Heights is filled with the energy, emotion, musical talent and excitement this cast brings to the table.”

It takes a prodigious amount of talent to do this play justice and captivate audiences, but Starcatcher pulls it off impressively on the strength of director/designer Eli Kaplan-Wildman, director/choreographer Yaeli Greenblatt, and a star-quality cast and crew.

In Jerusalem was invited to a recent rehearsal and was flat-out awed at an early-bird glimpse of some of the show’s iconic numbers being performed. Impressed by the talent, enthusiasm and energy of the actors, we pulled Kaplan-Wildman aside and posed a few questions.

How did you assemble such a large and impressive cast?

It’s a show with a lot of leads. I think there are 10 named characters, which is a lot, but there are four main leads. They are all ridiculously talented, trained and experienced, yet are all new to the local stage; this is the Jerusalem debut for all four of them.

Shir Arbiv (Vanessa) and Maya Kristal Tenembaum (Nina), who are playing the two female leads, are best friends from musical theater school – they studied together here in Israel. They bowled us over at the auditions and bring incredible warmth, depth, beauty and power to their interpretation of their roles.

Yair Farkas (Benny), playing one of the two male leads, has a degree in vocal performance. Unlike most of the others trying out, he came into the audition not knowing the show at all, but he swept us away – he’s brilliant, he’s an amazing actor, and he has this fantastic voice; his singing is incredible, off the charts.

Yair fits into the role perfectly and is able to take it exactly where it is supposed to go; he maximizes the material and brings it to its full potential. His character has to be likable, and Yair is, somehow, so charismatic that you just want to hug him and take him home. Every show needs a character that you want to wrap your arms around and take home, and Yair is able to amply supply that function.

We were scared about whether we could find someone who could play Usnavi, really pull it off. We had to hope that someone would show up, and then Shimi Herman walked into the audition out of the blue. He had just come to Israel – he’s an immigrant from Miami, not exactly a Caribbean country like the character he plays, but close enough. He’s of Latin descent; he is an excellent hip-hopper; he knew the show by heart even before the audition – he was ready to be on stage basically from the get-go; he was just Usnavi – there was no question.

We’re really lucky to have come across these people who reflect the show perfectly in a young and dynamic way. In addition to the energy, they have the feel, look and innocence that these characters would have. They’re just crazy good; they make the show amazing.

We just witnessed some spectacular group scenes in rehearsal. Tell us about the ensemble.

This is just about the biggest cast we’ve ever had in a Starcatcher show, partially because there were so many talented people who wanted to be involved and they were just so good that we wanted them onstage.

There are tons of music in the show and tons of choreography, and the ensemble is doing amazing choreography work. We’ve been working hard for months and months with a cast of people who have a really wide range of dance experience, and we have been able to get to this ridiculously high level and even further because people are committed to pushing themselves beyond what you would normally allow yourself to do, almost as a human.

To see what we are doing and to see ensemble members say, “No, no, I do want the harder thing. I want to learn how to do it, and I am going to try really hard, and I am going to get it – and then to see them get it is amazing.

Other than the obvious fact that this is an amazing, groundbreaking show that Jerusalemites are lucky to be able to see here in our capital, what drew you to select this play?


In the Heights is an all-encompassing show with a lot of heart that focuses on the plight of immigrants and their children and the challenges they encounter when having to adapt to a new country.

Told through the eyes of immigrants from the Caribbean and their descendants living in the barrio in New York, its themes are universally applicable – especially here in Israel. We all can identify with it. I find beauty in so many of the different groups of immigrants to Israel – from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Europe and all around the world – that we all find our place here and enrich Israeli society as a whole.

For part of my childhood I grew up in the United States. Now, as an artist living in Jerusalem, my love for musical theater is a big part of celebrating our unique differences and bonds within the broader dynamic of Israeli culture ­– and In the Heights really brings that home.

The five In the Heights performances are likely to be sold out. Audiences will go home humming, knowing that they have been privileged to experience something memorable , rare and moving. February 28 to March 9 at Jerusalem’s Hirsch Theater. Tickets: www.beitshmuel.co.il

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