Es calor! The summer heat is rolling in and Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia is keeping things cool with their production of In The Heights. As the interviews continue, I’ve taken a break from all the heat to have a moment with one of the coolest guys in the show – Tobias Young who plays The Piragua Guy, a key staple in the barrio, and one of the show stealers for his stellar performance.
Amanda: What is it that made you personally interested in this show?
Tobias: I think it’s because it’s a role that I never imagined that I would get. I’ve always taught myself to go after roles that I didn’t think I could get. I always doubt myself, but in the end I just do my best and I landed myself in the production. It’s really interesting because I’m an African American man playing a man from the Dominican Republic. It’s a little nerve wracking because it’s so about the culture. I just want to be respectful to the culture, I really wanted to nail the accent so that I sounded authentic and stayed true to the character’s nature. It’s really big deal for me to be able to perform a role like this and I’m really enjoying it. I approach every show and make sure that people know who I am, no matter how small the role people know I’m there. This show was perfect for me because it offered me a chance to be a minor character that I can make majorly important. I don’t need to always be in the limelight, and this show gives me a chance to really just enjoy easy street. I don’t need my vocal skills getting washed out every single night, it’s so good to be a part of the ensemble, it’s relaxing and really enjoyable.
Who is The Piragua Guy?
He’s really just this man who is very proud to get up every morning and do his job, even though he might not make a single dollar that day. He’s just very proud to do what he loves. I can indentify with that because as an actor I go out for gigs all the time without any guaranteed pay or success but I do it all the time because it’s what I love. He’s in it for the love of the work, just like actors. In the show Piragua Guy has to compete for sales with Mr. Softee, he has a line in his main song, “Piragua” that says “…and Mr. Softee’s trying to shut me down…” and I just see Mr. Softee as all the other actors out there showing up at those auditions trying to get the role I’m going for. There’s also a line in “Piragua (Reprise)” that says “…and Mr. Softee’s truck has broken down!” and I know that somewhere out there there’s an actor who tripped and fell so that I could get that gig. I really connect with Piragua Guy because we’re both just scraping by. I get up and every day I do this just like he does, we both keep scraping by!
What exactly is Piragua and have you had a chance to try it?
Tobias: Actually, me and the cast went to a Latin Festival 2 weeks ago and they had a huge Piragua stand there and I got to try one. We’ve actually been trying to find people who have them so that we can experience it. There is a lady who lives around here that sells them right out of her window. Piragua is basically like a snowball or a snowcone, the difference is really in the syrup. The syrup for Piragua is thicker and super sweet so you don’t need as much. With a snowball you want all that extra syrup but with Piragua you only need like one squirt. They’ve got a lot of great flavors, I think my favorite that I’ve had so far is mango. The only one I didn’t really like was Margarita, I tried that one at the Latin Festival and it was just way too tart.
What’s it like in the barrio from Piragua Guy’s point of view?
Tobias: The barrio is Piragua Guy’s biggest selling point. That middle ground where everyone gathers is his biggest promo; it’s his way to get up in there and just sell as much as he can. If someone is within an inch of that cart, he’s looking up and trying to catch their eye so that he can attempt to sell some. The barrio is the party place, everyone is there, and so is Piragua Guy. I think personally the only thing that could connect me even more to what’s going on when Piragua Guy is in the barrio is if there were some way to have an actual Mr. Softee on stage with me so that people could really see Piragua Guy’s strife and struggle. Plus it would be especially rewarding to see his cart all broken down late in the second act and then the people could really celebrate the victory with me.
Do you have a treat that you only get in the summertime sort of like Piragua?
Well, actually, not so much a treat, but I do have a food routine. It’s probably sushi. See I’m a summer baby, in the summer I love all the light foods. All fall and winter long I eat all these heavy filling foods, so when summer rolls around all I want is light food. And it’s sushi. The cast has had to deal with me constantly talking about wanting it and then bringing it with me to rehearsals, but I really love it.
What has been your experience with this new rap/hip-hop fusion musical? How well do you think the audience is experiencing it?
The very first time I saw In The Heights I was confused because I thought they took things too far. But once I was cast and I really started paying attention I realized that it’s actually really brilliant because it’s giving an entire story in rap! And there is no other musical out there that’s ever done that before. David Gregory as Usnavi is able to express his feelings so much better than he could singing because of the rhythms in the rap. It’s so fast, he’s constantly moving his body and you just feel everything. I think when people hear rap they immediately think these negative things, so for Lin-Manuel Miranda to really write a musical that tells a full story is so perfect in this way. There’s a perfect example of how the rap really translates the emotions during “Hundreds of Stories.” David gets so worked up, and these emotions get so built up, he’s letting them fly so fast, and it becomes so very very clear. You can’t miss it, it’s this big breakdown moment and if it was just done through singing you might miss all these emotions because with singing you either hit it or you don’t, but with rapping the rhythm carries these emotions and it’s just amazing.
Are there any other characters or storylines that you can relate to personally?
Oh, see, Daniela (played by Santina Maiolatesi) is my girl. Me and her interact and we’re very flirty. She’s Piragua Guy’s side chick, though I don’t think anyone knows that’s what’s going on. We’re always flirting in “Carnaval Del Barrio” and we’re always doing something together. She’s just a lot of fun to be on stage with, so for him, she’s the one he can really relate to.You have quite the powerful voice, which we get to hear often, but how do you feel about not getting to rap?
I’m not bothered. Not one bit. There are many things I am good at and there are many things that I’m OK with trying but rap is not one of them. It’s just something that’s not meant for me. Like if they’d asked me to understudy for Benny I’d be terrified and Benny doesn’t even rap all that much. My ear doesn’t click like that so it’s a very intimidating thing. I’m perfectly happy just to be singing in this show. And I like having the chance to let people know that I’m there with my voice. The note that I sustain at the end of “Piragua” “…keep scraping by!” is actually me letting out all of my frustrations as acceptance because I’ve accepted that I’m just getting by.
Amanda: You do a lot of singing in Spanish in the show, did you come in knowing any of the language, and was it difficult to learn?
Actually most of my singing, except for what I sing during “Piragua” and “Piragua (Reprise)” is in Spanish. It wasn’t difficult because going into this show I didn’t know any Spanish. And going in without knowing made me happy because I was able to learn on a completely blank slate from people who speak the language fluidly and they were able to break it down for me to make me understand. The first few times I sang through my part in “Carnaval Del Barrio” there was nothing behind it. But once I really learned the language I got a real sense of pride going on. The words that I sing, “Parriba esa bandera…alzala donde quiera…recuerdo de mi tierra…” they literally mean to wave your flag up high to the sky because it reminds me of my homeland. It’s going to be a good time, raising your flag and celebrating. The song doesn’t’ even feel like work because it’s so much fun, this huge party, and it’s amazing, I wish we could bring people onto the stage to dance with us because it’s so energetic. As for singing that song in Spanish, I don’t want to be disrespectful of anyone who speaks the language, so I got really focused. Singing this duet here with a fluent native speaker, David Gregory, I knew it was really important to make sure I understood the language and that it came out sounding right. And just coming into learning it with a blank slate was such a huge help.
What’s been the most fun thing about this show so far?
I think building the community and new family. The first show I did at Toby’s was Dreamgirls and I left that show with a million friends that were really my ‘family’ and I’ve stayed in touch with them all this time. And I’ve been waiting to find that feeling of friends that become your family in a cast again and I’ve found that with them. We do a circle pre-show to get everyone calmed and focused every night. There’s no drama or arguing and we all gel and really get along. It’s great. It’s a good easy show for me, because I just come on, sing my stuff, and then I leave. I haven’t had this much fun with a cast in a long time and I’m really glad to just be a part of it.
What about the most difficult part of the rehearsal process for you?
Hmm. I think the most difficult part of the rehearsal process for me was not really being needed a lot. It might sound strange, but this show is really dance heavy and there were just lots of numbers where I sat there and got to chill. I’m only in 4 scenes for the first act, so I really had to make sure that I used my down time wisely. I think the challenge was managing my time, making sure that I got to go over my dialect and word pronunciation, etc. There’s a whole good 45 minutes where I don’t do anything and finding what to do in that time has been the biggest adjustment for me, but I think I’ve managed alright.
You’re not in “96,000” but what would Piragua Guy do if he won the lotto?
Oh that’s easy. He’d turn his cart into an actual store! Piragua Shop. Restaurant style.
What do you think that Piragua Guy wants the audience to take away from this experience?
Piragua Guy really wants people to appreciate the small things in live and to never give up. There’s so much more rejection than acceptance in life, but Piragua Guy just has to keep going because at the end of the day it brings him happiness. He wants people to understand that they’re bringing the joy to their lives, he doesn’t need much to make him happy and if he didn’t love his work he wouldn’t be doing it.
As Tobias – the actor – I think the thing I want the audience to take away most is for them to just open their eyes to different forms of art in general. Being able to incorporate rap in a musical is something that no one had dared to do before, but now because someone has tried to do it— and it’s been a huge success— it’s opened the door for new things. The show opens everyone’s eyes even though there’s all these different cultures, to the basic fact that we’re all the same people. We all have jobs, we all suffer losses, and so instead of judging each other, no matter where you’re from or who raised you, we’re all just the same people trying to scrape by, day by day by day.
Amanda Gunther’s review of In the Heights.
Lights Up on ‘In The Heights’ at Toby’s: Part 1: An Interview With David Gregory (Usnavi) by Amanda Gunther.
Lights Up on ‘In The Heights’ at Toby’s: Part 2: An Interview With Director Larry Munsey by Amanda Gunther.
Lights Up on ‘In The Heights’ at Toby’s: Part 3: An Interview With Tobias Young (The Piagua Guy) by Amanda Gunther.