The lights went out at Merrick’s Backstage Theatre, and playful screaming in anticipation of Second Stage Productions’ performance of “In The Heights” commenced.
The musical, written by Lin-Manual Miranda, chronicles the lives of residents in Washington Heights, a largely Dominican-American neighborhood in New York City. It opened on Broadway in 2008, where it lasted for a few years, winning four Tony Awards.
Though this local production — in a roughly 70-seat theater tucked behind a Subway sandwich shop — was not Broadway, high school students from around Long Island, including Oceanside High School sophomore Rebecca Goldfarb, brought it to life during a 12-show run that concluded on April 9.
Goldfarb, 16, played the lead role of Nina Rosario, who left the Heights to attend Stanford University, but drops out after “working to pay for books I didn’t have time to read.” Back home, the show tells the story of her life in the “barrio,” the relationship with her overprotective parents and her romantic entanglement with a local friend, Benny, played by Matt Castello.
The production company, in its seventh year, has performed about six dozen shows since its inception, and has called the Merrick theatre home for the last two, according to “In the Heights” Director Brian Stalter.
The show featured a diverse cast of talented students ranging from 14 to 18 years old. Audience members got a flavor of urban Hispanic culture, as the young actors spoke in Latino accents, sprinkled in Spanish phrases, and incorporated some dancing consistent with the culture.
Bearing a strong message of family and being grateful for what you have, the show also spotlights difficulties faced by immigrants, including homesickness and financial worries, which Goldfarb said made it a timely performance. “It’s very important because people today don’t realize the struggles that so many immigrants have,” Goldfarb said, “and it touches on that and can really educate people who come to see it.”
In particular, the song “Paciencia y Fe,” meaning patience and faith, depicts the move of Abuela Claudia — played by Ashley Hoffman — and her family from Havana to America in 1943 for better working opportunities, and the hardship that came with it.
“I hope that [the audience] came away feeling really good about what they just saw,” Stalter said, “and an appreciation of the culture that is the Dominican Republic in Washington Heights, which is what, [only] 25 miles from here?”
Other leads that night were played by Shiloh Bennet, Anthony Orellana, Ruben Fernandez, Alissa Popeck, Jillian Sanders, Jason Eccles, Julia Dubinsky, Sebastian Diaquoi and Callie Giambalvo. Camilla Montoya choreographed the show.
“A lot of it, there wasn’t even acting,” Goldfarb said. “…The chemistry was there because we all had fun together.”
Though a prominent role for Goldfarb, she has gotten used to those over the years. After seeing “Hairspray” on Broadway at 6 years old, she was enamored with theater and acting, and has since flourished in productions in school, and outside, at theaters like Backstage.
Starting at a young age, she voiced roles in children’s television shows, and has acted and done voiceovers for several commercials. Goldfarb has also appeared in ABC’s “What Would You Do?” and the Daily Show, as well as a few films, some of which have been shown at the Cannes and Tribeca film festivals.
“My parents really saw that it wasn’t just a hobby for me,” Goldfarb said. “It was really a passion and a desire, and they really helped me try to pursue it. I’m really thankful for them.”
Most recently at OHS, Goldfarb played a cheetah — and Gertrude McFuzz for a day to fill in for a sick lead — in the high school’s road-show performance of Seussical in January, as well as a hot box dancer in the spring musical, Guys and Dolls.
With a dream of acting on Broadway, her latest gig of “In the Heights,” she said, surrounded her with young actors pursuing the same end goal.
“For so many people, this is what they want to do and it’s their dream…so they give it their all and they work so hard and you see the effort,” Goldfarb said. “You see how it pays off for everyone and how much they enjoy it, and it’s just so nice to be a part of.”