Talking In the Heights with Debra Cardona and Justin Gregory Lopez

Anna Hopps, Ordway 9/13/17
Justin Gregory Lopez
Justin Gregory Lopez (Usnavi)
Debra Cardona
Debra Cardona (Abuela Claudia)

In the Heights, the Ordway’s latest original production created in collaboration with Teatro del Pueblo, is currently in performance in the Ordway Music Theater — and it features a truly extraordinary cast, including the best of the best from the Twin Cities theater scene and across the country. We had the opportunity to chat with two members of that cast, Debra Cardona (Abuela Claudia) and Justin Gregory Lopez (Usnavi), about what it was like to create this show, what you should know about In the Heights, and more! 


First, you’ve both performed at the Ordway before, so some of our audience might already know you — when did we last see you on our stage?

Debra: I performed at the Ordway back in the mid-1990s in a national touring company of Fiddler on the Roof. We were in St. Paul for a week and then moved on to the next city. It was not a show produced by the Ordway, but a touring company presented by the theater. Doing In the Heights is quite different in that this is an Ordway production — and I get to be in St. Paul for five weeks.

Justin: This will be my second time performing at the Ordway (I came in with ‘Paint Your Wagon’ last year), but this is my first time working on an Ordway Original.


And when did you first see In the Heights? What was your first impression?

Justin: In the Heights was first prescribed for me by a fellow cast member during my first Equity job in 2008.  As an actor, it changed the way I perceived my own long-term viability in this industry that seemed so intent on seeing me as a drug dealer, a thug, a gang member, or other types of racial stereotypes.  I remember having to save money to see it and being absolutely floored by the use of rap as the vehicle for storytelling, the infectious music and rhythms, and the athleticism of the choreography.  I’ll never forget it.

Debra: I auditioned for the show when it was first opening off-Broadway. I didn’t get the job, but I made sure to go see the production. When I walked into the theater and saw 181st Street, complete with subway entrance, bodega, and the George Washington Bridge in the background, I squealed in delight. Then the show started and I saw my experience as a Latina who had grown up in New York up there on the stage. I cried when I heard “Breathe” — in fact, I cried quite a lot while watching the play. And I adored every minute of it. Later, I took my mother to see it when it was on Broadway. I promised myself that, come hell or high water, I would do this show someday.

My grandparents came to New York from Puerto Rico, and both my parents and I were born in Spanish Harlem — a barrio very similar to Washington Heights, but in East Harlem. Washington Heights was predominantly Dominican and Spanish Harlem was predominantly Puerto Rican. I grew up with the hydrants open during the summer, I sometimes slept on my grandmother’s fire escape on a hot night, and I had a deep connection to my community. We all had each other’s backs. In the Heights illustrates this beautifully. It is such a blessing to have a show that highlights the Latino experience in New York — and makes everyone who sees it realize that this is the American experience. And that it has been so widely embraced just makes me so happy.


Tell us about what it’s been like to work on a collaboration between the Ordway and Teatro del Pueblo.

Debra: This truly is a collaboration. James Rocco and Al Justiniano confer with each other. They split the scenes, weigh in with each other and respect each other’s opinions. Because In the Heights is specifically about the Latino community, it’s wonderful that Al can bring his understanding of the culture and influence the vision for this production. It’s quite a good partnership.

Justin: Regional collaborations, for one, are a fantastic way to share a production with many more audience members; it’s a win-win for those involved in the process and for those who get to experience the show.

From a dramaturgical perspective, the collaboration between Teatro del Pueblo and the Ordway helps to ensure the cultural integrity of the production which deals in large part with Latin American themes and music.

On a personal level, I can’t help but think of the young person with a Spanish surname who gets to see him-/herself represented in a professional production of a heralded, successful Broadway musical.  Growing up in New Jersey, I didn’t have very many mainstream Latin American idols outside of Marc Anthony, baseball players, and boxers.  Certainly, Latinx visibility in the theatre industry was extremely rare.  I’m especially proud to be doing this co-pro with Teatro del Pueblo because it is a fine showcase for what Latinx actors, actresses, singers, and dancers can bring to the professional entertainment industry when being met with the opportunity to do so.


As part of this run of In the Heights, you’ll be performing in a student matinee. What do you hope the students experience when they see the show?

Debra: I hope that they learn that musical theater is amazing and that they want to see more of it. Also, that musical theater speaks to their generation and their experience, and not just to old fuddy duddies like me. My hope is that they learn that musical theater is exciting and relevant.

Justin: In addition to accurate, authentic representation, I hope the students watching this show are inspired by not only the story, but by the hard work and dedication it takes to be a professional in any industry.


If you could play any other character in In the Heights, who would you want to play and why?

Debra: Oh, I love playing Abuela Claudia too much, but if I had to choose another role I think it would be Daniela. She is so much fun, and the “Carnaval del Barrio” number is one of my favorites.

Justin: Aside from Piragua Guy — come on, that song — I would love to play José/Man 2 because that would instantly mean that I’m a killer dancer.  A killer dancer.


And if you could transport your In the Heights character into another musical, which one would you pick?

Debra: I think Abuela Claudia exists in other musicals — Cousin Nettie in Carousel, Aunt Eller in Oklahoma, the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. She is the heart of her community and a source of wisdom.

Justin: I’d put Usnavi in Cats so maybe – just maybe – I can finally understand what that show is about.


What would you want to say about In the Heights to someone who’s most familiar with classic Broadway? And what would you want to say about it to someone who’s never seen live musical theater before?

Debra: I always tell people that In the Heights is not West Side Story — that it is more like Fiddler on the Roof. Also, that it does what a traditional musical accomplishes — it has music you can go home humming, but also gets you excited about rap and hip hop (much to your surprise), and a story that is both entertaining and deeply moving. It’s musical theater taken to the next level. If they haven’t ever been to a musical before than this show is the best “gateway drug” in the world. They won’t be able to get it out of their head when they leave the theater.

Justin: Most of the performers you’ll see on the stage come from some sort of classical background.  If not for classical training in acting, voice and speech, opera, or ballet to draw from, most of us wouldn’t have the stamina or the technique required to perform this show at all, let alone eight times per week.

As for lovers of classic Broadway, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bigger fan of the classics than  the writer of this show, Lin-Manuel Miranda.  He is a self-professed theatrephile who writes in moments to “tip the cap” to his theatrical predecessors.  Plus, if you consider yourself a fan of Sondheim’s mile-a-minute lyrics, or Shakespeare’s sonnets, but you don’t think you’d like rap in a musical, I’d wager to say this show would change your mind about that.


Can you tell us a little about what it’s like to take part in a theatrical production created in the Twin Cities?

Debra: I’m not from Minnesota, but I have performed at the Guthrie. Penumbra Theater and Theater de la Jeune Lune (how I miss it) have impressive reputations around the country. The theater community is quite vibrant here.

Justin: Having performed out here before, my takeaway is that Twin Cities’ audiences are very savvy, supportive, and loyal.  That, along with having seen and experienced some of the Twin Cities’ talent, is proof positive that there is a thriving theatre scene here.


And one last question: what’s the first thing you would do if you won the lottery?

Debra: Well, first of all, it depends on how much money I won. But with $96,000 I would make sure my mother’s rent was paid for the year, maybe move to a nicer apartment, and go on a fabulous trip.

Justin: It depends how much it was!  If we’re talking about a ridiculous sum of money, I’d do my best to make sure nobody knows about it outside of close family and I’d make sure they were cared for. I guess the only other giveaway would be my vacation time, haha.


In the Heights will perform September 12-24 in the Ordway Music Theater. Tickets are available on the In the Heights performance page or by phone at 651.224.4222.

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