LITTLE FALLS, NJ - Kelsey Kaelin-Panico of Montclair, will perform in the ensemble of the Passaic Valley Summer Theater's musical "In the Heights," opening this weekend.

With music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, the story is set involving characters in the Hispanic-American neighborhood, comprised mostly of Dominican lineage, in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan. The action unfolds over a three-day period.

After theatrical production at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut in 2005 and Off-Broadway in 2007, the show opened on Broadway in March 2008. It was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album and was nominated for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

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Performers in the production this summer include students from Bridgewater, Cedar Grove, Clifton, Fair Lawn, Little Falls, Montclair, Parsippany, Rockaway, Saddle Brook, Totowa and Woodland Park.

PV's production staff includes Maggie Letsche, director; Raymond Frasche, musical director; Jenny LeProtto, choreographer; Laura Menard, vocal coach/AD: Robert Lavagno as artistic director; and Brian Sedita, publicity director.

The cast for the production includes:

Robert Stevens Jr. (Saddle Brook) as Usnavi De La Vega, Brianna Cielo (Woodland Park) as Nina Rosario, Alexander Sanchez (Totowa) as Kevin Rosario, Annie Challice (Little Falls) as Camila Rosario, Taylor Olsen (Rockaway) as Benny, Gabriella Volonnino (Little Falls) as Vanessa, Kenny Lee (Parsippany) as Sonny, Meghan Jenkins (Bridgewater) as Abuela Claudia, Maria Schneider (Rockaway) as Daniella, Ava Silverman (Cedar Grove) as Carla, Miguel Maldonado (Little Falls) as Graffiti Pete, and Nicholas Splendoria (Cedar Grove) as Pragua Guy.

The ensemble cast includes:

Danielle Adubato (Cedar Grove), Olivia Coronel (Clifton), Kelsey Kaelin-Panico (Montclair), Zakaria KayKay (Woodland Park), Alex Papasavas (Woodland Park), Mira Preziosi (Woodland Park), Samantha Spinato (Fair Lawn), and Alex Swetlitschnyi (Totowa).

Those participating in this year's summer theater production received a special visit from Jelani Remy, who plays the adult "Simba" in the Broadway stage version of Disney's "The Lion King." Remy, 30, who is a Cedar Grove High School graduate, attended Montclair State University for two years before getting cast in the national tour of Disney's "High School Musical." A Disney casting agent suggested he audition for "The Lion King."

Remy made a prior visit to the high school to give students in the theater program an audition workshop. He was on-hand again to give performance tips and spot check their dance moves.

"The amount of talent here is really incredible," Remy said. "I'm impressed every time I come. The talent seems to get better and better and their passion gets greater and greater."

Some of the cast members commented on portraying some of the characters.

Cielo, who plays Nina Rosario, said she has empathy for the character being that she won a scholarship that enabled her to get out of her neighborhood and with the goal of a brighter future. However, she eventually loses the scholarship because she needed to work during college.

"She was the one who made it out of Washington Heights to go to Stamford University," she explained. "But because she comes from a poor family, she had to work and she couldn't keep up with her grades, so she unfortunately loses her scholarship. She then has to drop out and tell her family."

She added that she admires Nina because of the pressure she feels and despite the turn of events, finds the strength to keep going.

Robert Stevens Jr. plays Usnavi De La Vega, a bodega shop owner, who runs the business with his cousin Sonny. 

"He's a very kind-hearted person, who always puts himself last. He inherited the shop from his parents, who emigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic," he said. "They died and he has the shop now. He sometimes acts goofy but he always makes sure everyone else is okay and forgets about his own needs. He dreams of going back someday."

Nicholas Splendora, who plays the Piragua Guy, said he appreciated struggling immigrants trying to make it in their businesses.

"He walks the streets selling his ice, while facing stiff competition from the ice cream trucks," he said. "I like him because he remains optimistic despite his struggles, and believes everything will be alright."

Letsche also commented.

'"In the Heights' was chosen in hopes to widen our scope of communities reached with our summer program," she explained. "To capitalize on this great pulse of theater now, with Lin-Manuel Miranda's successes of 'Hamilton,' 'Moana,' etc. We felt this story of youth, tradition, community and family are universal."

She also spoke of the turnout of those auditioning for the production.

"We had an outpouring of talent of over 80 students from all over and got the best of the best," she added. "I am truly eager for folks to come out and see all the hard work these kids have put in. We pushed them to work at a professional level and they rose to the occasion, even exceeding expectations. Most importantly, they came together in the same way as their characters do and became family. This material is rich, dense and extremely poetic. It has such heart and I am honored that my kids gave their all to create such art. You will feel their hearts in every word and I could not be prouder."

Jennifer Shue, producer, commented on the production.

"This program is an exciting theatrical experience open to students in the NJ/NY area," she said.

PV's In the Heights production will run this Friday, July 28 and Saturday, July 29 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 30 at 2 p.m. All performances will be held at Passaic Valley High School, 100 East Main St., Little Falls. Tickets can be purchased online at Any questions, contact Jennifer Shue at 973-890-2500, ext. 2522.