BY JENNIFER CROWLEY
Small class sizes, state soccer championships and a strong performing arts program are some of the more well-known characteristics of the Wheatland-Chili School District. Around the last point, the high school’s annual spring theatrical production is a much sought-after extracurricular activity that creates sell-out productions. Next week (March 21st, 23rd and 24th) brings the highly anticipated performance of In The Heights to the Wheatland community and the buzz is growing louder.
Last year’s school production of Peter Pan was met with audience delight. The beloved, family friendly story was brought to the stage with a high energy style and hidden harnesses that literally flew the actors around the stage. As the audience exited, many showgoers remarked that the bar had been set quite high for 2018.
A high bar calls for a high leap and that’s exactly what ticketholders are in store for with In The Heights. The Tony Award winning musical was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, best known for penning and starring in Hamilton. The gritty In The Heights portrays vignettes of everyday life in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. The score features hip-hop, salsa and soul music, reflecting the musical tastes of the predominantly Latino population living in Washington Heights.
“In choosing In The Heights, we were giving a nod to our choreographer and the dance talent we have in our school. Peter Pan didn’t have much innovative choreography, but Cori [Colombo, choreographer] did a great job with it. This year we wanted to let her showcase the dancing skills of our students, many of whom take lessons from dance schools all around us,” offered Cara Montrois, a social studies teacher at Wheatland-Chili High School that is also an adviser to the school’s drama club.
Choreography isn’t the only complexity of the upcoming production. In The Heights also features complicated dialogue that flows from English to Spanish and back again. And on top of the pressures the students have been feeling to learn steps and lines, there is an overarching emotional aspect to the performance: the absence of teacher and program director Jill Skivington Jackett. The adored Jackett lost her life last November after being hit by a car while out on her morning run.
Jackett, or “Miss Skiv” as she was often called, helped elevate the quality of school productions over the ten years she was involved as the school’s drama coach. Her unique ability to find hidden student talents and then also inspire the confidence needed to perform live in shows such as Peter Pan, Hairspray and Guys and Dolls is something she will always be remembered for.
Jackett was involved in selecting In The Heights for the 2018 production which had recently been cast at the time of her passing. Choreographer Cori Colombo along with Cara Montrois, Nicholas Roche, a music teacher in the Wheatland-Chili system, and newly hired production director Jason Ford, a fifth-grade teacher in the Rochester City School District system, teamed to keep the musical moving forward despite the grief and disbelief they and the all students felt.
“At the beginning of January I was selected as the new artistic director. I am so honored and humbled to have continued the wonderful work that Mrs. Jackett had started with the students. There are 38 kids in the cast, another 10 in the orchestra, and 15 on stage crew and they are all very dedicated to making this production a beautiful dedication to their teacher,” explained Ford. He added that though he has been involved with many productions in the Rochester school district, this is his first time directing a high school performance and that he, along with everyone else involved, is very focused on putting on the best show possible in honor of Miss Skiv.
Staring in a leading role this year is sophomore Jenna LaMere. LaMere is playing Vanessa, the love interest of lead character Usnavi, a bodega owner. Vanessa works in a salon but has dreams that take her away from Washington Heights. According to LaMere, “The most challenging part of the role has definitely been achieving the right amount of sass for Vanessa. She is a very flirtatious person and it has been hard to have that throughout the acting, singing, and dancing aspects of the musical.”
LaMere along with the other cast members have been rehearsing for nearly four months. “I don’t even want to think about the number of hours they have spent practicing,” said Montrois. She added that how each year more boys, like senior and multi-sport athlete, Anthony Rosado, show interest in the performing arts which only helps bring diversity to the casts, expanding the reach of the productions.
Anyone attending the Wheatland-Chili performance of In The Heights that had the opportunity to see it last year at Geva Theatre may think that parts of the static set and stage props look very familiar. And that’s because the salon awning, doors, fire escapes and more were the same ones used in Geva’s production thanks to a scenic designer that was able to secure the pieces from the theater.
With a professional-grade production set, bi-lingual dialogue and complex choreography, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that the pit band had its work cut out for them this year. “Yes, the music is significantly more challenging than previous years. Lin-Manuel Miranda loves to layer different melodies over each other which allows us to highlight a great number of our very talented cast. A lot of the music is inspired by hip-hop, reggae, and traditional Spanish music, very different from the traditional musical theater standards. So yes, a big change for the band from Peter Pan, but one they gladly took on,” said Roche.
Wheatland-Chili is one of the first area school districts to put on a performance of In The Heights and given the dedication students have to dramatic excellence – this year more so than others – it is a show not to be missed. As LaMere summarized, “It has been a team effort to get this far. We know that Mrs. Jackett is looking down on us. We are all working hard and can’t wait for opening night.”
Tickets for the 7:00 PM performances on Friday, March 23rd and Saturday March 24th are $10 each and can be purchased in the main office of the Middle/High School, over the phone by calling 889-6235, or at the door on the day of the show. There is also be a special Matinee/Senior Citizen reception and performance on Wednesday, March 21 at 4:00 p.m. with the reception at 3 p.m. Seniors over the age of 65 should contact Andrea House at 889-6240 for their tickets. All others interested in attending the Wednesday matinee can purchase tickets through the main office or at the door on the day of the show.