A contemporary tale of young adults trying to find their way -- often overcoming poverty or other difficult circumstances -- is the narrative in the musical "In the Heights."
It also describes the cast of high school students playing the roles this weekend at the Cortines School of Visual & Performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles.
Senior Jose Velazquez, 18, who plays a lead role, has been acting since he was a child, even though his working-class parents have no background in the arts.
"I was actually going to go to high school around my neighborhood near USC," he said. "But I left my friends and said, 'Sorry, I love acting.'"
Sophomore Trecey Dory, 16, rides the bus and train for an hour to get to the downtown campus, which is the flagship arts-themed school in the
"I just picked up good vibes from the theater," he said. "It's my second home."
He is particularly drawn to "In the Heights," which is infused with rap music.
"This isn't your standard, cheesy musical, not your '5, 6, 7, 8' and cliched dance moves," he said. "I'm attracted to mature shows, and then there's the dancing of this show."
Trecey plays the role of a graffiti artist and displays his break-dancing skills. He learned some moves from choreographers who were brought in, and picked up other moves at dance studios or from friends.
The visually lavish play, featuring sets from a professional touring group, runs through Sunday.
The initial star is the set, which conveys a convincing streetscape of Washington Heights in New York City. The production is intended to showcase what the school can accomplish under new Principal Kim Bruno, who formerly headed the famous LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City.
The Cortines school has experienced a rocky history, churning through administrators, among other problems, but Bruno said she is happy to be here.
"It's a refreshing change, a new world to explore," Bruno said. "The kids are similar. They march to their own beat. They're passionate, committed, outspoken. Some want to pursue arts. Some simply have an interest or are considering pursuing arts."
Eighteen-year-old Liana Kleinman, the valedictorian, is a dance major but took on an acting role.
"She probably will go out and become a rocket scientist even though she's a magnificent dancer," Bruno said.
Senior Tyrone Angeles, 17, does a persuasive turn as a youth whose talent and heart are obscured under a facade of fun-loving indifference. Although he'd been taking theater classes, "In the Heights" is his first show at the school.
"I thought, 'I can't leave the school and not be in a production,'" he said. "Thank God I was cast. It's been an amazing experience, something I've never experienced my whole life. It's shown me things I never thought I could do, like, sing."
His mother, a waitress, had been lukewarm about his decision to attend the school.
But "she saw how happy I was and supported me the whole way. She's ecstatic about me being in the show."