NEW PORT RICHEY — It started with an off-handed remark, a joke really.
It was “way back when” before the summer break, and drama teacher Peter Nason and his protege Chris Cavazza, 19, were bouncing around ideas for a future production while sizing up the kids enrolled in the 2019-2020 advanced drama program at Gulf Middle School.
To be sure, it was a diverse group, a classroom full of burgeoning talent waiting to be tapped, among them a kid with a passing resemblance to the American playwright, composer and actor, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
They could do In the Heights, Cavazza said referring to Miranda’s outbreak hip-hop musical that gives the audience a peak into the lives of those residing in the American/Hispanic neighborhood of Washington Heights
He wasn’t serious of course. The Tony award-winning musical, which is rarely done in middle school, would be a mature reach — a PG-13 production, so to speak.
But Nason was intrigued.
When it comes to theater, and life in general, reaching is what it’s all about, he said. He had confidence in his kids. And Miranda, who created and starred in the award-winning Broadway musicals In the Heights and Hamilton, offered a revolutionary take on musicals that appeals to the younger set.
“Let’s do it,” Nason said.
That was before the auditions, summer rehearsals, and lunchtime, after-school and Saturday rehearsals that have been going on ever since.
“This has become my life, really," said Carissa Amoroso, 14, who plays the role of Vanessa, a girl with a dream who’s looking to get out. “We’re really like family in here.”
In fact, In the Heights has a variety of familial themes running through it.
Annabel Perez, 12, plays the role of Nina Rosario. Her character, the first in her family to attend college, returns to tell her parents she dropped out under the weight of classes and working to pay expenses her scholarship does not cover.
“The story line is good — a work of art really,” Perez said.
"It’s got a really good message for people, family-wise,” said Emily Smith, 13, the lead soprano. “You should always respect your family and keep them in your heart.”
Noah Medeiros, 13, plays the lead role of Usnavi de la Vega, which Miranda played in the original production.
“It’s one of my favorite musicals,” said Medeiros. “There are a lot of funny parts, but it’s serious, too. It relates to real-life problems.”
Then there’s the music.
“I like that it incorporates hip hop like Hamilton,” said Anthony Vega, 13, who is making his stage debut playing Kevin, the father-figure. “It’s a little mature for most middle school musicals, but we’re doing really well.”
Choreography was by Gulf Middle dance teacher, Toni West and Terri D’Onofrio, owner of Stages, a professional musical theatre company. Spanish teacher Joel Santos assisted students with dialects and pronunciation.
There is some mild profanity and sexual innuendo. That has been toned down for this production, Nason said. Parents were required to sign permission slips allowing their children to perform.
“We spoke to the kids, too," said Cavazza. "We told them that when you are in the theater, sometimes you have to be more mature than your ages, and they are doing it very well.”
“This is what middle school theater is all about,” said Nason. “We’re just upping the ante with this production.”
Cavazza, a River Ridge High graduate and former student of Nason, is directing. He recently performed in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, and is waiting to hear back for the lead role in a national production of Hamilton.
The opportunity to direct this production hits close to home, Cavazza said.
His grandfather is first generation state side with his father being a native to Puerto Rico, he said.
“The show preaches about diversity and community in such a wonderful way, and I love to be sharing this experience with these kids.”
If you go:
Gulf Middle High Theatre presents Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights at 7 p.m. Oct. 25 and 2 and 7 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Center for the Arts at River Ridge, 11646 Town Center Road, New Port Richey. Tickets are $5 at the door. Note: This production is not recommended for young children.