Stage & Dance

Actress in tour of 'In the Heights' was one of its first groupies

The cast for the North American tour of In the Heights includes, from left, Celina Polanco, Virginia Cavaliere and Benjamin Perez. Polanco was a fan of the show before she was in it.
The cast for the North American tour of In the Heights includes, from left, Celina Polanco, Virginia Cavaliere and Benjamin Perez. Polanco was a fan of the show before she was in it. ALL

Celina Polanco was a fan of In the Heights well before it won the Tony Award for best musical and became the latest sign of cultural shifts on Broadway.

"I was kind of a groupie of the show," the actress said from Chicago, where she is playing Camila in the national tour that comes to Lexington this weekend. "I followed the cast very closely, and I always made it my business to keep up with Hispanic men and women in the musical theater and kind of what they're up to, what they're doing and what's being developed. It's fun for me.

"So once this show became such a huge, rousing success, I was very proud to be part of the community as well."

The pinnacle of success for the musical by composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and writer Quiara Alegría Hudes was the 2008 Tonys, where the show won four prizes, including best musical. It also was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

"From the first time I saw it, there were so many things that were groundbreaking — the music, the choreography, the score, the director — it seemed like a winning combination," Polanco says. "But at that point, many years ago, you had to hope and pray that it would catch on like it did."

Still, the show travels somewhat incognito. As a new 21st-century musical, it has no precedent to clue people in as to what it is.

The show is set in three days in the Dominican-American community of Washington Heights, New York City. Focusing on traditions and change in that community, the show is loaded with Latin rhythms and vibrant dance. To Polanco, it is an important show to Hispanic audiences and performers.

"I imagine young people of all ethnicities seeing this show and relating to it in their own way," Polanco said. "But I believe that just seeing someone that looks like you on stage, on TV, on screen, validates your point of view in a way that is transformative. It makes you feel like your story is important."

Now that she is part of the show, Polanco says, she finds many more "groupies" for the show.

"We've been all over the country, and it is very humbling to come out the stage door and meet the people that are touched by this material," Polanco says. "It's been extraordinary."

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