Modern take on musical production

Jack Gillis performs during rehearsal for Urusline College Chatham’s production of “In the Heights.” The musical runs from April 9-13.

As the curtain is about to go up on the Ursuline College Chatham production of “In the Heights,” work is frantically continuing on all facets of the show.

During a recent rehearsal, The Chatham Voice had the opportunity to speak with one of the producers, Jim Dunlop, and one of the show’s main performers, Jack Gillis.

Both were very enthusiastic when discussing the musical, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the same person who penned the popular “Hamilton.”

Dunlop said the days leading up to a performance are always manic, but are ultimately rewarding.

“It’s always absolute chaos (before a performance), and every single time, we sign up again,” he said of the supporting group of teachers.

Dunlop added the musical is also challenging, as it ventures into new territory for performers and producers alike.

“It’s a bit scary working with this musical. It’s infused with hip-hop, Latin salsa, pop music and Broadway ballads,” he said.

Miranda’s blend of genres continues to gather attention, as “Hamilton,” which focuses on one of the United States’ founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, also is delivered with rap, hip-hop and pop music.

For “In the Heights” the setting is Washington Heights in New York City.

Gillis is a UCC performance veteran. The Grade 12 student has done “The Wizard of Oz” and “Annie” in previous years, and is playing Usnavi for “In the Heights.” He said this year’s effort is fresh.

“It is a musical, but it’s really unique and modern. It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “There’s a lot of upbeat music and a lot of singing and dancing.”

It’s also the most challenging to date for Gillis.

“I wouldn’t have considered myself much of a singer or dancer before (doing UCC productions). I’ve learned a lot, but it is hard and this is definitely a challenge,” he said. “There is more singing and dancing. And with the rapping, that adds more words to memorize.”

The backdrop for “In the Heights” is sure to draw the eyes of the audience. Extending into the rafters of the theatre, the faux buildings are done in great detail, complete with fire escapes and businesses occupying the bottom floors.

Set building has been underway since the beginning of the year, Dunlop said.

“We’re trying to make it look like a real location and not just a wooden set on a high school stage,” he said.

Teachers, students, parents and volunteers have been busy painting the set.

On stage, Gillis said, challenges aside, he loves it. “In the Heights” is a welcome change. “Annie” and “Wizard of Oz” are musical classics, with the former first opening on Broadway in 1977 and the latter first being performed on stage back in 1902.

But “In the Heights” first hit Broadway just 11 years ago.

“The language is modern; the music is modern. (Miranda) has taken an old concept and turned it into something new,” Gillis said.

Dunlop said close to 30 kids are in the performance on stage. Upwards of 20 more are in the band pit, another 10 are involved with handling the lighting and stage crew duties, while another half dozen or so are tackling the costumes.

Gillis said being part of the UCC productions is very gratifying.

“I love performing, but I’ve made some really great friends I wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said. “We hang out and spend a lot of time together.”

The curtain goes up on In the Heights next week. Afternoon matinees are scheduled for community partners and Grade 5 to 8 students in Chatham-Kent’s Catholic elementary schools from April 9 to 12.

Evening performances for the general public begin on April 10 and run through April 13, beginning at 7 p.m. in the Ursuline College Theatre.

Tickets are $20 and are available at the UCC Box Office, or by calling 519-351-2987.



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