Eleven years ago, I was blown away by Natalie Toro’s gorgeous voice in Signature Theatre’s production of The Fix, and last year, I was once again mesmerized by Natalie’s performance in A Tale of Two Cities in NYC. I was so happy when Natalie was cast as Camila in the National Tour of the Tony Award winning Best Musical In the Heights coming to Baltimore because it would gave me a unique opportunity to catch up with her.
Last night (Feb 23rd), I saw In the Heights at the beautifully restored Hippodrome, and I am happy to report that it has all the excitement, heart, and power of the Broadway production. The amazingly athletic, bulked, and flexible dancers and the exciting choreography will thrill you, and leave you breathless. The performances and gorgeous singing of the talented cast will make you stand up and cheer. The score will make you tap your feet and the heartfelt book will make you laugh and cry. The eye popping set will make you feel like you are living and enjoying the sounds and smells of New York’s Washington Heights. And, if you are Latino, my guess is you will be smiling and cheering all night, and your heart will be filled with immense pride.
Natalie Toro took the role of Camila to new heights. Her powerful – and sometimes funny – performance was full of fire and passion. She was tough-as-nails, the “You listen to me!”, “I’m in control!” wife and mother, who is forced to keep the family together while dealing with her daughter Nina dropping out of college, and her husband suddenly deciding to sell the car and limousine service that they had worked so hard to build into a successful company. When Natalie sang her 11 o’clock number “Enough”, you could hear a pin drop in the theatre – she had the audience in the palm of her hands. I heard one theatregoer behind me say to her friend, “That’s one tough mama!”
After the show, my friend Bonnie Berger, who is a friend of Natalie’s, myself, and my partner Alex spent time with the spunky and lovely Natalie Toro, schmoozing over Buffalo wings and Bailey’s and glass after glass of coke and diet coke, about theatre, her career, growing up in Puerto Rico, living in NYC, and being in the In the Heights tour. It was a delight to visit with this warm and funny actress who is so dedicated to her craft, a perfectionist who always gives 110% to her audiences because, “they deserve it and expect it, and I am there to deliver it for them”. And, boy did she deliver last night, and the audience ate it up.
Joel: What is In the Heights about from the point of view of Camila, who you play in the National Tour of In the Heights?
Natalie: It’s about a community I’ve lived in since I came from Puerto Rico with my husband. Everybody knows everybody. [In the musical] I own a car service company and was the first one in my family to be able to send my only daughter to college. That is a big deal.
Joel: What personal experiences do you bring to the role of Camila?
Natalie: I don’t have children, but I channel my own mom. She wanted everything for me that she wasn’t able to attain. She was tough and straight forward.
Joel: When did you receive the offer to play Camila in the tour of In the Heights?
Natalie: I got the offer last May. It is a great honor to be in the first national tour of a hit Broadway show.
Joel: Has Priscilla Lopez – who originated and is still performing the role of Camila on Broadway – offer you some advice and/or talk to you about the role of Camila?
Natalie: No. I play her very differently from Priscilla. As an actor, I would never want another person’s view on the character.
Joel: Did composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda meet with you and the cast as you prepared for the tour?
Natalie: He was there the whole rehearsal process and he wanted to make sure we understood the process of how he wrote it. He also changed a few lyrics and some melody lines. The rest was up to the Director Tommy Kale.
Joel: Please set up your big number called “Enough”.
Natalie: It falls in the second act and up until now, there are a few things that have made my family start to have trouble. So finally, Camila has had enough of her husband and daughter – and spills out her feelings.
Joel: What is the most emotional scene for you to watch – when you are not in the show, and why?
Natalie: Watching our Usnavi (Kyle Beltran) give a eulogy. (Don’t want to give it away).
Joel: You are Puerto Rican, so how did it feel the first time you stepped on the stage to perform Camila in a Broadway musical that was written about and by Latinos, and had won the Tony Award for Best Musical?
Natalie: It was incredible. It is an honor to be in a musical about Latinos but, more important, there is nothing in this musical that depicts Latinos like most Hollywood and television movies. There isn’t a drug dealer, murderer, or bad person. It’s just an honest story about real people in a real neighborhood.
Joel: I understand you grew up in the Bronx. Does the show remind you of anything from your NYC experiences?
Natalie: It all reminds me of my upbringing, the buildings, the street lights, the fire escapes, and all the different types of music that would play out of everybody’s windows.
Joel: Is it true you performed at the Apollo Theatre when you were 5? Where did you receive your vocal, musical, and theatre training?
Natalie: Yes, I did amateur night there with a five piece band. I went to the high School of Music and Art, Manhattan School of music and The Boston Conservatory of Music.
Joel: Last year you appeared as the evil Madame DeFarge in the musical A Tale of Two Cities, and your performance was amazing! I also saw you perform the roles of Eponine in Les Miserables 3 times on Broadway, as Grizabella in Cats, and as Evita in the 20th anniversary tour. What was your favorite role among the four, and what was your favorite song to sing?
Natalie: Wow! I can’t believe you saw almost everything! My favorite role was Eponine, and my favorite song to sing was “On My Own” in Les Miserables for sure.
Joel: Why do you think A Tale of Two Cities did not have the success of Les Miserables, and do you think it suffered from being compared to Les Mis?
Natalie: It was all a “political sabotage” and one that would take me a very long time to write here. We all know this world is so corporate now that even the theater suffers at their mercy. It is a very sore subject with me since I was involved. It would make your hair stand up and you would be disappointed in what I know to be true.
Joel: I hear they have filmed A Tale of Two Cities for PBS. Did you appear as Madame DeFarge in that filmed performance?
Natalie: Yes! They released it during the holidays, and we also got to record the CD.
Joel: Unfortunately, The DC area PBS stations did not show it. I’m told it’s going to be released soon.
Joel: You are on the road through August. Do you enjoy being on the road, and which cities and theatres are you looking forward to performing in, and why?
Natalie: It gets harder and harder to be on the road now with all the airline rules. I have been to all of these cities three times, but I still always look forward to the west coast.
Joel: I loved The Fix at Signature Theatre, where you played Tina. Tell my readers about the role of Tina and the 1999 Signature production.
Natalie: That was a long time ago. All I know if that I replaced the girl playing Tina during the last week of previews, learned the show in 24 hours, went on for two more previews and opened. Phew!
Joel: You have a one-woman show Standards, Broadway, and Everything In Between. Tell us about it.
Natalie: In a nutshell, “She infuses her Latin culture with her Broadway background, with banter that will make you laugh and cry at the same time. Her self-deprecating wit will have you have routing for her as she describes her journey from the Bronx to a Broadway Diva.”
I love doing the show. I get to be who I am and be loose with my banter. I have done this show for a year now and in the process of writing a new one. Hope to do it in San Fran and the new one in LA.
Joel: Here’s a chance to plug your CD “Natalie Toro”. What songs did you select for the CD?
Natalie: I wanted to do a record with Broadway songs with a twist. So I got like eleven different arrangers to help me with all my thoughts. It’s full of songs that I have always wanted to record, and so far the reviews have been amazing! If you come to the show, they sell it at the merchandise booth and if you forget, you can grab it at www.cdbaby.com
Joel: Tell me one thing about Natalie Toro that only her family and best friends know.
Natalie: I am obsessed with “One Life to Live” the soap opera. Don’t judge!
Joel: What would you say to a Latina student who has her sights on Broadway, and or is considering theatre as a career?
Natalie: GO TO SCHOOL!!!!!!! Be involved with everything theater in your neighborhood. Every experience leads to something else. It’s a small business, and you’ll eventually get to know people that can help you.
Joel: Why should DC area and Baltimore theatergoers come and see In The Heights in Baltimore at the Hippodrome?
Natalie: It’s a unique show that doesn’t exist anywhere else. You’ll be moved and will want to call your Grandmother when you get home!
In the Heights plays at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center at The Hippodrome Theatre, 12 North Eutaw Street on the University of Maryland Baltimore campus, in Baltimore, MD. For Tickets, go to www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com, or call (410) 547.SEAT.
Watch videos from the In the Heights National Tour.
Joel interviews NYC cast members Robin De Jesus and Andrea Burns: