For theatre and dance freshman Max Torrez, the more he is able to find the personal connection within a script, the better he is able to convey the emotions to the audience. Torrez stars as Sonny in UT’s staging of the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights,” being performed Wednesday through April 19 at the B. Iden Payne Theatre.
“I just like being able to tell a story,” Torrez said. “I feel that’s what acting is for. Art is a universal language and being able to communicate these fantastic stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances is just mind-blowing for me.”
Torrez was among the few students who got cast in one of the lead roles in the first round of the musical’s auditions. According to director Jerry Ruiz, most students were initially cast in ensemble roles with local professional actors being considered for most of the lead roles.
“The creative team wanted more experienced performers in those lead roles, and there was an unfavorable reaction to that from the student body,” Ruiz said. “The students really wanted to have a shot at playing some of these roles, and that’s when the department rebooted.”
Ruiz was hired as director in late December after the theatre and dance department decided to change the entire creative team and allow more students to be cast.
“I quickly saw there was a lot of talent in the student body,” Ruiz said. “I knew we would be able to cast people who were really appropriate for the role, who were the right age, and who could believably play these characters with their talent and musical and acting ability.”
Torrez is one of 34 UT students who have been cast in lead and ensemble roles for “In The Heights.”
The musical is set in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, which is primarily inhabited by people of Latin-American descent, and tells the story of a small community of people in their late teens or early twenties who have to grow up and learn to face their problems.
Torrez’ character Sonny is a 15-year-old who likes hanging out with his friends and his older brother .
“He’s quite a character,” Torrez said. “He has a lot of growth because he’s forced to grow up in a short amount of time. He’s funny, he’s insightful and he’s smart. Back when I was younger, I was that kid.”
Torrez’ foray into acting began halfway through junior year of high school when his school director asked him to audition for a role.
“I was in football, and, when I ended up getting the role, the audience’s reaction after the first song I sang sealed the deal for me,” Torrez said. “I dropped football, and I took up acting, and I’ve not stopped since.”
Unlike Torrez, who instantly knew Sonny was the role for him, dance freshman Melinette Pallares auditioned the first time with only one goal — to be part of the musical. Even though she wasn’t cast the first time, she said she received a callback when she participated in the second round of auditions.
“I was just going to be happy with anything that I got,” Pallares said. “I was just happy to be there and gain the experience of auditioning because a lot of other schools don’t let their freshmen and sophomores audition.”
Pallares plays Nina Rosario, one of the lead characters.
Born and raised in Harlingen, Pallares moved to Austin last year to study at UT. Of Puerto Rican descent herself, Pallares found her dream role in Nina.
“I automatically fell in love with Nina,” Pallares said. “My mother is Puerto Rican, and so I feel like I can really understand all of the cultural aspects of who she is and what her family is like. She’s also a 19-year-old freshman. She’s just trying to figure her life out — what she wants to achieve — and I feel like I’m in the same boat.”