Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reverend’s Interview: Reaching the Heights of In the Heights

The Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights is making its Southern California premiere this summer, running June 22-July 25 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood before moving to the Orange County Performing Arts Center August 3-15.

In the Heights is a celebration of life in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, Washington Heights, in New York City. According to the show’s press notes, “It’s a community on the brink of change, full of hopes, dreams and pressures, where the biggest struggles can be deciding which traditions you take with you, and which ones you leave behind.” The original Broadway production won four 2008 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Score and Choreography. In addition, its original cast recording won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. In the Heights will soon be a movie musical directed by High School Musical mastermind Kenny Ortega.

The musical’s creator/composer and Broadway star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is set to headline the LA production (but not the OC run). Sharing the stage with him will be 29 of the most talented actors, singers and dancers in musical theatre today. Among them is Wilkie Ferguson, an openly gay, African-American resident of Southern California. Ferguson recently called shortly before a Friday night performance of In the Heights in Denver, Colorado to talk.

“I really love tour life,” Ferguson told me. “I think if someone is going to pay you to travel the country, you should take advantage of every opportunity.”

Prior to In the Heights, Ferguson was a member of the ensembles of such popular musicals as Hairspray, Sister Act, Stormy Weather (starring Leslie Uggams as the late Lena Horne) and Ray Charles Live! He also served as assistant director/piano accompanist for the acclaimed Boys’ Choir of Harlem.

“I grew up as a pianist, but got bitten by the theatre bug in high school,” Ferguson explained. “I got tired of sitting behind the piano unseen!” As one of 11 ensemble members of In the Heights, the actor is “pretty much in everything, since we play members of the Washington Heights community.”

The very handsome Ferguson grew demur when I asked him about his age. “You know actors can’t reveal our true age; Just say I’m of voting age,” he replied, slyly. He has been with the In the Heights tour since its launch last December in Miami, Florida, which happens to be the city of Ferguson’s birth.

“The tour has been fantastically well-received,” Ferguson said, “but a little better received in cities with a large Hispanic population” such as Miami. It has gradually been making its way west to California.

I asked Ferguson whether there is any GLBT content or message in the show. “Absolutely,” he replied. “The main storyline is a universal message about family and finding where you belong. There is a subplot involving an African-American man in love with a Hispanic woman and the challenges they encounter that GLBT people can definitely identify with.”

In addition to talking about In the Heights, Ferguson spoke fondly of his time touring in Hairspray — saying “That was fantastic!” — as well as being a part of the Pasadena Playhouse’s world premiere of Sister Act. He described the latter, adapted from the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie, as “Amazing, and a different experience since I was in on the development of the show. But it was tiring, since there were 15 different shows (between changes and additions to it) during the course of development.” The Sister Act musical has since become a huge success in London, and may eventually play on Broadway.

Ferguson confessed that it can be challenging to maintain a relationship while on the road, especially when his significant other is a fellow actor. “We’ve been happily together for about four years now,” he shared. “It was difficult at first (to be apart because of the In the Heights tour) but we’ve adjusted well. Our rule is we don’t go more than three weeks without seeing each other, so we’re racking up the frequent flyer miles!”

Not so long ago, to be black and openly gay in the performing arts was often seen as a double liability, not a benefit. Fortunately, things have changed, enabling Wilkie Ferguson and other talented black GLBT artists to excel. Don’t miss out on the chance to see some of them in action this summer while In the Heights is in your vicinity. For additional information or to purchase tickets, the official In the Heights website.

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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