Jerry Ruiz

Lily Amelie Hayes dances at the dress rehearsal for “Fame The Musical,” presented by the Department of Theatre and Dance. The play centers around a group of dedicated performing arts students determined to become famous.

Photo Credit: Ellyn Snider | Daily Texan Staff

In preparation for the opening night of “Fame The Musical,” theatre and dance students worked to perfect a human staircase, a synchronized body-percussion routine and their costume changes. 

Adapted from a 1980s movie musical, the narrative follows a group of teenagers selected to attend a public performing arts high school in New York. UT’s Department of Theatre and Dance fall musical will run from Friday through Dec. 6.

The Department of Theatre and Dance chose to put on this musical because it has a multi-protagonist plotline that allows a number of students to showcase their talent. The characters are also mostly teenagers, which gives the cast a chance to play a type of role they would get cast in professionally.

Jerry Ruiz, a guest director who currently resides in New York, said he thinks the cast is different from most others because it is composed of mostly underclassmen. 

Among these underclassmen, Leslie Leal, theatre and dance freshman, creates a memorable moment during her solo by walking on a human staircase made up of the ascending shoulder levels of her fellow cast members.

Ruiz also said he is excited to be working with a diverse cast. Although he considered that some parts were written for a particular race, Ruiz overlooked this when casting. 

Ruiz said a challenge typically faced when putting on musicals is making them feel realistic. His goal as a director is to overcome this challenge as much as possible. 

“Even though [musicals are] a heightened expression, I want to find the truth in [‘Fame The Musical’] for the actors and make sure it stays honest,” Ruiz said.

Acting sophomore Max Torrez shares Ruiz’s vision. Torrez plays Joe, the comic relief, in the musical but does not want to act as a caricature. 

“When [characters] have depth and have an inner drive that inspires them to be who they are, it makes it easier to connect to them,” Torrez said. “What I enjoy about [Ruiz] is that he wants you to make the character your own. It really gives the play a whole other dimension.”

Torrez said singing is his favorite thing as well as his greatest challenge when it comes to musicals.

“[The dialogue] builds up to this point to where [the actor] can’t say anything else, so they start singing,” Torrez said.

Acting sophomore Trey Curtis said he drew from his real life romantic relationships and his love of music when developing his character, Schlomo, in the musical.

“I believe if you can connect with the character, you’re already halfway there,” Curtis said. 

“Fame The Musical” particularly interested Curtis, he said, because his mom played the sound track frequently when he was younger.

Curtis said his favorite memory so far on the set of the musical was when a choreographer from Canada came to teach the cast a synchronized body-percussion routine, which entails using the human body to create sound and rhythm.

As far as the plot goes, Ruiz believes the story is universal and relatable. 

“Each of [the characters] is trying to find who they are as an artist and a person,” Ruiz said. “It’s really exciting that these young, talented actors are getting a chance to flourish.”

Theatre and dance freshmen Max Torrez, Trey Curtis and Melinette Pallares star in “In The Heights.” The UT staging of the Tony Award-winning musical will start Wednesday and run through April 19.

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

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.”