From the moment Arielle Jacobs opens her mouth to sing, she captivates audiences with her powerhouse voice — a surprisingly large sound from such a small person.
Jacobs is starring in the first national tour of “In the Heights” as Nina Rosario, a bookish young girl home from her freshman year at Stanford University. The show is playing in Austin through Sunday.
“In The Heights,” winner of four Tony Awards and a Grammy, is a musical about the vibrant community of Manhattan’s Washington Heights and its inhabitants’ daily struggles to get by while enjoying life’s simple pleasures and dreaming of better jobs and better opportunities.
Jacobs said there are many similarities between herself and her character, Nina.
“She’s very academic, very much the girl next door. In some ways I think I am like her, ” Jacobs said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself to always succeed in everything I try and put my mind to and in a lot of ways, I take on too much responsibility. When I’m struggling with something, I try to fix everything myself, and I think Nina does that as well.”
She said the show’s music and dancing are the reason for its popularity.
“It’s just very lively, joyous and contagious, the way that it’s so beautifully melded together,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show that the choreography is so tied into the lyrics.”
She says the play’s positive portrayal of the Latino community also contributes to its widespread popularity.
“It’s the only show out there that represents Latinos in a good light,” Jacobs said. “Most of the time you see them as gangsters or servants, and this is the only show out there that allows you to experience their culture as something that is beautiful. It really gets you back in touch with being proud of where you came from.”
Jacobs, like many in the entertainment industry, started training and performing at an early age. She started dancing when she was 3 years old and singing at 7.
“When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be a pop singer,” Jacobs said. “I wanted to be like Mariah Carey, so I started doing a lot of singing and community theater, but I wasn’t sure musical theater was what I wanted to do with my life.”
Jacobs began her career in the entertainment industry almost by fate. When it was time to search for colleges, she applied for theater and music at New York University but applied for environmental science at every other school. NYU was the only school that she was accepted to, and Jacobs went on to graduate magna cum laude with a bachelor’s in music.
Originally playing the role of Gabriella in the theatrical version of “High School Musical,” Jacobs was surprised at the overwhelmingly positive response she received from audiences.
“It was kind of like being part of The Beatles or being in a rock concert,” Jacobs said of her experience touring with the show. “Literally, these kids were so obsessed that when the lights went out at the beginning of the show, they would be screaming. They wanted to be a part of it so bad.”
To her surprise, starring in such a beloved role placed Jacobs in a leadership position.
“I used to receive e-mails from girls who were having a hard time in school, who were having a hard time with their confidence,” she said. “It put me in this mentor position that I had never been in before. It was weird for me to think of myself as someone whose advice they were going to take so seriously.”
While touring with “High School Musical,” Jacobs used her influence as a mentor to raise awareness among her young fans about environmental issues through her website, helphealtheearth.com.
“Because all these kids are looking up to me, I thought maybe I can make a difference,” Jacobs said. “So, that’s basically why I started the website as a resource where I could let kids know that there is a place they can go and read about the environment, just hoping that if they thought I cared about it then maybe they’d think it was cool to care about it too, even if their parents and community didn’t.”
Although the idea of touring as a cast member of such a wildly successful show may sound glamorous, Jacobs admits that it’s not always easy living out of two suitcases. She said she frequently gets frustrated with the lack of control she has over her life, her eating habits and the realities of not really having a home while on the road. But she acknowledges being part of “In the Heights” is worth the hardship and that touring does have its advantages.