Friday, July 12, 2024

Pontiac High School theatre hits new heights

by Glen Hartle
Apr. 26, 2024
Pontiac High School’s theatre program presented the musical In The Heights over three days last week and left theatre-goers in awe.
Running Thursday through Saturday evening, with an added matinée Saturday afternoon, all four productions of the show sold out, each one ending in a lengthy and deserved standing ovation from the audience.
Producing a Tony and Grammy award-winning musical with a small-town high school production would be daunting to some, but director Phil Holmes, in his playbook message, said, “It was a challenge I was excited to take on knowing I had a cast and crew that could rise to the occasion.” This is understatement at its finest.
The extensive list of cast and crew entertained with a high quality production which strung together two acts consisting of 24 musical numbers on a stage rife with creative outlay in a comfortable theatre with quality sound and lighting. Yeah, they rose to the occasion. All of them.
This musical is a difficult ask for any company and it speaks to Holmes’ and co-director Debra Paquette’s ability to connect and inspire that they were able to bring Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2005 story of life in New York City’s Manhattan borough to Shawville’s Maple Street.
The story of the layered struggles of a tight-knit community was told through dialogue, dance, rap and song. The opening rap by Callum Maloney in the role of Usnavi set the tone for what was to follow as he launched onto stage and used the full of it while he rapped, “I’m getting tested; times are tough”.
He was entirely believable as a rugged young man who knows the street and who shares his tale with a flair for rhyme and requisite gesticulation.
Opposite Maloney’s intonations was his character’s love interest, Vanessa, played by school theatre stalwart Ollie Côté. Côté played the title role in last year’s Jesus Christ Superstar (What then to do with this Jesus of Nazareth. THE EQUITY, May 3, 2023) and once again helped anchor this production with their phenomenal vocal abilities and stage presence.
Maloney’s sidekick was delightfully brought to life by Griffin Lottes as Sonny, Usnavi’s younger cousin. Having a pint-sized and wise-cracking sprig of a boy offer relationship advice to a towering Maloney added delightful humour to the production and one could almost sense audience anticipation for when Sonny would next grace the stage.
Faith Hamilton took on the role of Nina, the girl who made it out of the general economic poverty of the neighbourhood to attend Stanford University on scholarship, only to fall back into it after dropping out of her first year of college.
Hamilton’s portrayal of the complex emotions that just such a life journey might involve was emphatic and her vocal delivery left you feeling as if you might be watching any of a number of auditions for international talent shows. Add to that her linguistic acuity and a young Puerto Rican woman from the New York City neighbourhood in which the musical is set manifested on stage.
Isaac Graham played Benny, love interest to Nina while also on her father’s payroll as a taxi dispatcher. Graham’s delivery added appropriate vulnerability to his character and in so doing added authenticity to the plight of romantics everywhere, making him an instant fan favourite. His star is on the rise and that he tackled a truly challenging role with such aplomb suggests that the sky really is the limit for the young actor.
Laura Graham’s saucy take on Daniela, a fast-talking Latina, was fun to watch as was Brooklyn Pachal’s opportunistic Yolanda attempting to step up and replace Vanessa as Usnavi’s love interest.
Adding to the lead roles were Grace Kelly as Abuela, Allie Benoit as Carla, Ethan Paulin as Nina’s father, Ava Schellenberg as Nina’s mother, Darcy Bowie as “the water guy”, Robin Lottes as Graffiti Pete and Jackson Knox as Jose.
Nothing was as surprising, however, as when Schellenberg’s character Camilla stepped into the spotlight in the second act. While delivering only dialog in the first act, Schellenberg nearly brought the house down with a singing solo that felt like the production had been holding back on a reveal. It was poignant and irrevocably brought the audience closer.
What was noteworthy beyond the entertainment value was just how the actors on stage entered into their roles. There was no holding back. They were all in. Bowie’s nerves settled during his solo as did Paulin’s, and they owned the stage.
Kelly became every grandma and Benoit was the finger-snapping smart-mouthed sidekick we dreamed of having as a friend. It was believable. All of it. And that is theatre at its best.
While this article does not articulate specifics on all of the cast and crew who made the production possible, director Holmes’ message perhaps best pays tribute to the team effort that went into bringing this story to life on stage.
“I could not be prouder of our team,” he wrote in the playbook. “The cast and crew of In The Heights have worked so hard over the past six months and that hard work has certainly paid off.”
And the community, both on the stage and off, are the better for it.