Hit­ting new heights


Ever since the original Broad­way cast record­ing of In the Heights was re­leased in 2008, Ryan Gon­za­lez has been “obsessed” with the show. So, he was thrilled to be cast in the pro­duc­tion open­ing at the Hayes The­atre Co this month.

Not only that, but he is play­ing Us­navi de la Vega, the role orig­i­nated by LinManuel Miranda who wrote the mu­sic and lyrics. Miranda fa­mously went on to cre­ate the hip-hop mu­si­cal Hamilton, cur­rently the hottest ticket on Broad­way.

“I was be­side my­self!” says Gon­za­lez.

“I was ac­tu­ally in New York when I found out, and I was there on my own so I had no one to cel­e­brate with, but it was amaz­ing.

“I think Lin-Manuel Miranda is a ge­nius. Go­ing through the score and learn­ing it, it’s just in­cred­i­ble mu­sic.” Cou­pled with Miranda’s sharp, witty lyrics, it’s “re­ally, re­ally juicy.”

Born in Wol­lon­gong into a Span­ish fam­ily, Gon­za­lez is a sen­sa­tional dancer. He has played en­sem­ble roles in mu­si­cals in­clud­ing Legally Blonde, Strictly Ball­room and King Kong, and re­cently donned drag to play one of the An­gels in Kinky Boots.

He is cur­rently in The View Up­Stairs (at the Hayes un­til March 11), a sweet show about a gay bar in New Or­leans de­stroyed by ar­son in 1973, killing 32 peo­ple — which means he is per­form­ing at night, while re­hears­ing In The Heights by day.

As his ca­reer builds, Gon­za­lez is now land­ing lead­ing roles as a singer-actor. Us­navi is not re­ally a danc­ing role. And in Septem­ber, he will play the al­ter­nate Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys.

“It’s in­cred­i­ble. I do two shows a week,” says Gon­za­lez ex­cit­edly.

In The Heights is set in Wash­ing­ton Heights, a New York City neigh­bour­hood on the cusp of change. We meet a group of colour­ful res­i­dents, most of them Span­ish­s­peak­ing mi­grants from Cuban, Do­mini­can and Puerto Ri­can back­grounds. Through a se­ries of vi­gnettes, we dis­cover their hopes, dreams and strug­gles.

Us­navi owns the lo­cal bodega (store).

“Un­for­tu­nately, his par­ents died when he was very young, and he doesn’t have any fam­ily there ex­cept his cousin Sonny and they kind of run the bodega to­gether. And there’s Abuela Clau­dia (who looked him when his par­ents died). But it’s so beau­ti­ful be­cause he has be­friended ev­ery­one else in the com­mu­nity,” says Gon­za­lez.

The score com­bines Latin pop, hip-hop and a Broad­way sound. In the open­ing song, Us­navi in­tro­duces the closeknit com­mu­nity through a rap num­ber — Gon­za­lez’s first time rap­ping.

“I think I am kind of lucky be­cause I grew up with that kind of mu­sic. Be­ing such a hard-core dancer as a kid (from age three), we used to dance to all that stuff so I’m quite fa­mil­iar with it,” he says.

“You want to get the style and the flavour of the rap and the hip-hop and the Latino mu­sic that is be­hind it. But you also want ev­ery­one to hear ev­ery sin­gle word be­cause, es­pe­cially for my char­ac­ter, most of the story-telling is in the rap­ping. So that’s prov­ing in­ter­est­ing and quite hard, but I love a chal­lenge.”

Step­ping into the shoes of Lin-Manuel Miranda is a dream come true for Ryan Gon­za­lez.

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