For diversity and vibrancy of a student population, few suburban high schools compare to Maine East in Park Ridge.
Beginning Friday, Maine East's Fine Arts Department will present a remarkable musical that reflects those traits.
At 7:30 p.m., Maine East will become the first high school in Illinois to perform the Tony Award-winning "In the Heights." Set in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood, the musical tells the story of a community where the struggle to define who you are is just as important as knowing where you came from.
Karen Hall, Maine East theater director and drama teacher, says she chose this musical after seeing it on Broadway because of the connection it has to East's diverse body of students.
"It's a show about culture," Hall says. "How do I fit in? What is home? And how do we make that work?"
"In the Heights" breaks from musical theater tradition with its upbeat score and hip-hop choreography.
Hall has taught choreography for past musicals, but this year she is incorporating the talents of three Maine East alums -- Kevin and Kyle Familara and Gus Segovia.
"Their hip-hop skills are phenomenal," Hall says. "They're creative, they collaborate well, and they bring a lot of things to the table that I couldn't."
She adds that the cast has connected with them and enjoys learning new dance numbers with the young men.
Being among the first high schools to stage the production means breaking new ground in other ways.
Instead of going to a catalog and ordering a stock backdrop, Maine East worked with L.A.-based Grosh Scenic and offered their own creative input as the firm designed and produced a backdrop from scratch, featuring the iconic George Washington Bridge.
The scenery will be rented to other schools as the show's popularity grows -- which almost certainly will occur.
"In the Heights" won four 2008 Tony Awards, for Best Musical, Best Choreography, Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations -- and enjoyed a three-year Broadway run.
Hall says directing "In the Heights" has been different from musicals she has worked on in the past, mainly due to the background research required for the show.
"It meant immersing myself in a culture I'm not totally familiar with," she says, "but the really cool thing about the show is that I have a lot of kids in this cast who can explain it to me."Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.