A gainst a partly cloudy sky near the upper reaches of Manhattan, the George Washington Bridge looms over a vibrant street scene in Washington Heights. Weathered signs reading “Rosario’s Car & Limousine,” “De La Vega Grocery” and “Salon Unisex” identify working-class businesses filled with character and characters. Brick facades rise above, with apartment windows and occupied balconies overlooking the action below.
But we’re not actually people-watching at the mouth of the George Washington Bridge; we’re stage-watching in Woodbridge, where the Amity High School drama program is putting on a dazzling presentation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights. In another sense, “in the heights” is where Amity drama’s been since a sweeping victory at the 2013 Connecticut High School Music Theater Awards last June, when it won an improbable seven awards out of twenty total for an outstanding production of Sweeney Todd.
Overseeing all the theatrical activities at Amity is Rob Kennedy, responsible for classes during the school day and extracurricular electives in the afternoon. Out of a student body of 1,600, I’m told about 150 stay late to take classes in acting, design, choreography—any- and everything related to theater. To prepare for the production, Kennedy even took his stage designers on a field trip to New York to see the real thing, resulting in “one of our best [sets], capturing the neighborhood so well.”
The opportunity to run Amity’s program came in 2007, which would prove to be a fortuitous year for Kennedy. He was just finishing earning his teaching credentials after several years spent cutting his teeth as a director at Shelton High School. Meanwhile, Amity’s new school administrator at the time, Dr. John Brady, was a committed advocate for the arts and wanted Amity to be as excellent in this regard as Staples High School in Westport, where Brady had worked before.
At the outset, he challenged Kennedy to guide the program to a prestigious Moss Hart Award, given by the New England Theater Conference to recognize the best dramatic productions in the region, within five years. Amity won the high school division in just two, then won an honorable mention the following year.
Along with a supportive administration, Kennedy had something else going for the program when he came on board: a brand-new, $13 million, 750-seat rounded auditorium that has since been augmented by an intimate 100-seat black box theater, “amazing for a high school,” he says. The black box will be put to especially good use on May 23 during a 24-hour drama festival when, Kennedy says, about 50 kids—“designers, directors, writers, technical staff and actors”—“will be given a topical theme, like ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ or YOLO.” They’ll workshop the theme and “produce 5 or 6 short plays the next day,” to be performed for the public.
The intertwining of Kennedy’s personal history and the school itself may help explain the seemingly boundless passion he exudes on its behalf. He attended Amity as a student and met his wife, Andrea Drobish, there. A voice teacher in her own right, Drobish co-directs and choreographs Amity’s musicals with him, including In the Heights.
Past plays and musicals under Kennedy’s guidance include The Laramie Project, Rent, Chicago, Les Miserables and Twelve Angry Jurors, indicating that the ambition behind the program extends to a willingness to tackle difficult and mature subjects. Heights does that as well, but it also presents peculiar logistical challenges to Amity’s student actors and musicians: since the vast majority of characters are Dominican-American, accents are a must, and the score is heavy on Latin music, notoriously difficult to get right for musicians and dancers often trained primarily in other idioms.
Among the students accepting those challenges is Shaylen Harger—who Kennedy and Drobish agree has a “god-given voice, one of the most talented female singers we’ve ever directed.” Harger plays Nina, the rare neighborhood girl to attend college, and at Stanford University, no less. Nina has the difficult task of coming home to her parents, played by Jacob Leibowitz and Addie Robbins, to tell them that she’s lost her scholarship. Things become even tougher as Nina falls in love with Benny (Max Karsanow), a young man who works for the family but is deemed unacceptable by her father. Nick Bottone plays Usnavi, a young bodega owner with one eye on Sonny, his wisecracking younger cousin (deftly portrayed by Ryan Rattley), and another on hairstylist Vanessa, the object of his affection. Chelsea Tambis, a senior who’s been in every production since she was a freshman, plays Vanessa, a character she describes as a “girl from the barrio who is not really happy with life,” yet is “confident and protective,” and “likes to flirt.”
She’s not alone. Flirtations zig and zag all around the stage this week at Amity, between fictional characters in In the Heights, and between the students and the crafts they’re honing to such dramatic effect.
In the Heights at Amity Regional High School
25 Newton Rd, Woodbridge (map)
Final shows: April 10, 11 and 12 at 8 p.m.
Box office: (203) 392-2019
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Dan Mims.