Curtain Call: Kyle Beltran on "In the Heights"

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Booking a flight or filling your tank won't be necessary for taking a trip this holiday weekend. In the Heights, the 2008 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, brings the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights to us - the Ohio Theatre, specifically - for a six-day visit.

Spiced with salsa, merengue, soul and hip-hop, the ensemble piece about three days in the life of the predominantly Latino neighborhood is steered by Dominican-American Usnavi, a bodega owner whose store is a communal stop for the play's cast of characters.

Usnavi was originated on Broadway by In the Heights' creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. On the show's first national tour, he's played by 23-year-old Kyle Beltran.

"It's a show that really celebrates community and family, and really explores what it means to find a place to call home," Beltran explained. In a phone interview during the tour's previous stop in St. Louis, he also spoke of taking on an intimidating role, and the trick of rapping while your character's getting coffee for everyone on stage.

It seems like 23 is young to be fronting the tour of a Broadway musical. Is this your first tour?

This is my first tour. I just recently graduated from the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in Pittsburgh, so it's an extraordinary opportunity. It's something that happened really fast, and I'm infinitely excited and grateful to work on this amazing role after being a kid in musical theater school watching it on Broadway, just after it won the Tony.

Was there an especially high intimidation factor for you, stepping into the role originally played by the show's creator?

It was very intimidating and a little terrifying, because you want to do the role justice and serve the show, but Lin was nothing but supportive. He was in the room with us, along with the entire original creative team, for the whole [rehearsal] process and it was nice to have him there.

Our wonderful director, Thomas Kale, really encouraged the entire cast to think about putting our own stamps on these roles. They were very clear that they sought out actors that captured the essences of these characters in the same way the original cast had, but could bring their own flavor and energy.

That was really liberating. I felt I could build on the legacy that Lin and Javier Munoz, who's playing it now on Broadway, had already started.

You rap live on stage for your role. In musical theater context, is that a unique challenge?

I'm an actor by trade, but I have had a little bit of experience rapping because I'd done another show in San Francisco this past winter called Kingdom. That was actually my first time rapping in public, but after working on Kingdom and through the In the Heights audition process, I feel it really is second nature. There's something so expressive about it as an art form, which I really identify with.

That's not to say it's not a lot of work, and a lot of words to get out clearly so people can understand the information that's coming their way. It takes a lot of precision and energy and breath control. How do I rap and run around the stage at the same time? How do I train myself to do 10,000 things at once? That's what this role really requires.

Is there anything you'd like to share with those unfamiliar with the show?

I always refer to this show as our mom-and-pop operation, in the same way that Usnavi's little grocery store is, because we don't have the name power of The Lion King.

I encourage people to come out and take the risk even if it's something they've never heard of. They will recognize themselves in these characters even though this is about a specific community. I can guarantee they'll be moved, and they won't be able to keep their feet from tapping.

Kyle Beltran on "In the Heights"

When: Through Nov. 29

Where: Ohio Theatre, Downtown