Arielle Jacobs and Rogellio Douglas Jr. Photo credit: Carol Rosegg.

Arielle Jacobs, who originated the role of Gabriella in the national tour of Disney’s “High School Musical” and whose mother is Filipina, portrays the Puerto Rican character Nina Rosario in “In the Heights”. In this multiple Tony Award-winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, Jacobs’ crystal clear voice breathes a wide range of emotion in songs of homecoming, fear, expectations, love, persistence and dedication.

On opening night in Seattle, nearby audience members, a young Japanese couple, enjoyed the songs, music and on-going upbeat movements of the energetic cast along with the crowd. Most everyone around them in The 5th Avenue Theatre auditorium clapped after each song, but the couple’s however remained at rest.

Exactly the way Arielle Jacobs described the response of the “Heights” audience in Tokyo, in a recent phone conversation.

“That was difficult for the cast members,” said Jacobs. “We feed off the energy that comes from the audience. When they don’t respond … We’re not used to that.”

The Tokyo spectators may have been quiet inside the theater, but at the stage door, fans made up for their earlier silence.

“They couldn’t believe we brought the show — with sets and all. They were loving it.”

Still, it took the cast a couple of days, out of the show’s three-week run in Tokyo, to realize the audience really did love this new and most original musical.

The Japanese couple taking in the show at The 5th Avenue Theater caught on quicker to American mores, than the “Heights” cast had to the Japanese. After a few songs they brought their hands together as enthusiastically as those around them. During the intermission they stated that the immigrant story of “In the Heights” rings true for Asian people as well.

Perhaps the predicament of Nina, who comes home from Stanford having to tell her parents that she failed her classes and lost her scholarship due to having to work two jobs to make ends meet, struck a cord with them. The high expectations of Nina, the brilliant student, is something many will recognize. But it was the father’s sadness for not being able to help his daughter that made the young Japanese man feel empathy.

The flyers say “In the Heights” is “about home, family and finding where you belong.” Sure that’s true, but the musical is above all about the hopes and expectations of immigrants. The score, dance and lyrics attest to the nature of a community that knows to share joy and trepidation: a culture that finds pleasure and solace in spirited music, song and food, together.

Asked about her favorite song in this musical, Jacobs immediately said “Everything I know” was it. “Because that’s the turning point, where I know what I’m going to do.”

For Jacobs, having grown up in eco-conscious Half Moon Bay, California, knowing what to do in real life —the choice between musical theater and environmental science— may not have been that clear cut, but admission to NYU’s School of Music led Jacobs to her present career. These days she satisfies her urge to educate young people about ecology with her website Help Heal the Earth (www.helphealtheearth.com).

As for Heights, Jacobs said, “Young people need to see the show. Especially those who think they don’t like musical theater. Heights is for the MTV generations. It’s so different, so modern —with salsa and hip-hop. It’s “Dancing with the Stars” but on stage. They move you when you least expect it.”

“In the Heights” runs through Oct. 17, 2010 at The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue. For tickets, call (206) 625 – 1900 or, (888) 5TH – 4TIX or visit www.5thavenue.org.

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