Kyle Beltran, who plays the lead role of Usnavi in the Broadway Across America version of the Tony Award and Grammy Award winning In the Heights, now showing at the Hobby Center, credits the musical for bringing "hip hop into mainstream musical theater."
In fact, he compares the complexities of his fast-paced patter as the owner of a bodega in the Washington Heights area of New York City to performing Shakespeare.
"I'm not a rapper by trade but it's my second rap musical...it's a beautiful form of expression. It's just like lyric poetry. and you have to think so quickly and you have to move your mouth so quickly and it's so vibrant and exciting and my job is to make it as clear as possible to the audience. It's a lot like doing Shakespeare really because it's so many words and it requires clarity and precision and rhythmic accuracy," he told Hair Balls.
And before you think Beltran doesn't know what he's talking about when he references the bard, check out his resume. He graduated from the rigorous Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and spent his original freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. It's a tossup what's more impressive -- that he persuaded his family that it was all right to dump an Ivy League school and dreams of law school for a theater major, or that he graduated from Carnegie Mellon only last May and is now a headliner in a national tour.
Beltran points out that while some of the music may stray from traditional theater, the book itself is recognizable to any regular playgoer with its story of families, complications, successes and disappointments.
At press night earlier this week a wide swath of the balcony was taken up by young people who at points were screaming about certain songs just like in a rock concert. Beltran acknowledged this happens. "Some people who are crazy superfans and have every word of the score memorized and have a very good idea of what they're going to see" are in the audience at many of their shows, he said.
A certain amount of the show is in Spanish but even for the non-speakers in the audience, context makes it pretty clear what's being said. "You don't have to be a Spanish speaker to enjoy the show," Beltran said. He wasn't raised speaking Spanish; his father was Puerto Rican, his mother African American and she didn't speak Spanish, Beltran said. But by being around his father's family he picked up the accents and after studying it in school for seven years he speaks and understands Spanish, he said.
Anyone in the audience can feel the vibrations from the dancers and the pounding music during the show. Beltran said they all work hard to stay healthy and in shape. "We really pride ourselves on giving everything we have eight times a week across the country because every audience only has one chance to see it. It means a lot of discipline."
Early on, he had an onstage mishap with In the Heights. Beltran said it was opening week in Tampa and only his second performance.
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"I was doing the song 'Champagne' when he's trying to get the champagne bottle open with Vanessa and for some reason, I have no idea why, the prop champagne bottle used to actually be full of champagne, it was a real champagne bottle.
"And this night I'm fiddling to get it open and it explodes all over the stage ...one of those pops-across-the-room and champagne-all-over-the-floor. Unfortunately the whole lyric of the song is about struggling to get the champagne bottle open so I was really fortunate that it popped when it did and not earlier."
He covered for it by grabbing a cloth from the bodega counter, started wiping up the champagne, and adjusted the lyrics accordingly on the fly. He said he could hear one of the shows backers screaming with relief backstage.
I n the Heights, winner of four 2008 Tony Awards® and the 2008 Grammy® Award for Best Musical Show Album, is showing at the Hobby Center through from April 18. Tickets are on
sale and are available from the Hobby Center box office, all Ticketmaster locations, by calling 800-982-ARTS (2787), or www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com.