It’s a long way from Wootton to Washington Heights.
But for Mili Diaz, the Thomas S. Wootton High School alumna now playing Nina Rosario in Olney Theatre Center (OTC) and Round House Theatre’s (RHT) dazzling joint production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony-winning musical, “In The Heights,” the journey began at Rockville’s Musical Theater Center.
“I started taking jazz classes there, and hip-hop, then acting and monologue class,” said Diaz, 25. “All of a sudden, I went in to audition for their production of ‘(The 25th Annual Putnam County) Spelling Bee,’ and I got the part of Marcy Park! And that was, like, my first part ever.”
That was before MTC joined Adventure Theatre to become Adventure Theatre Musical Theatre Center Academy in 2012; Diaz remembers being overwhelmed by the support and acceptance she felt from her peers when she nailed that first audition. “I immediately felt so at home,” she said.
And, she noted, while MTC (and now ATMTC Academy) held its classes on Rockville Pike, Diaz made her debut on OTC’s Historic Stage, just steps from the Mainstage where she now joins two-time Tony nominee Robin De Jesús—who originated the “In The Heights” role of Sonny on Broadway and now plays the lead, Usnavi—and a full cast of Broadway’s best triple threats. For Diaz., it’s a full-circle moment. “To this day, I get messages from some of my MTC teachers,” she said. “They say, ‘We’re so proud of you, keep following your passion!’”
It’s a passion born of a profoundly American backstory: Diaz, whose “In the Heights” character was born in the U.S. to Puerto Rican parents, is an immigrant who came to the U.S. with her family from Peru when she was in third grade. While there may not be many bodegas on the street corners of the neighborhood where she grew up, Diaz definitely feels an affinity with the bright, ambitious Nina who returns to the barrio feeling defeated after her first year at college out West.
“There are many ways that I connect with Nina,” she said. “She’s very much like me: very studious, hard-working, got A’s all the time, and scholarships.” Like Nina, Diaz said, she wanted to make her parents proud, a feat she accomplished by deciding to attend Montgomery College (MC) on a full scholarship to the honors program before setting off for Pace University in New York City for a BFA in musical theater.
Diaz calls it “following the American Dream;” she understands the pressures and doubts Nina must face and overcome. Performing here in Olney, she added, “is the first time that I’ve really connected to the feeling of coming home, and what it means to carry that feeling with you.”
Coming home means staying with her parents—Diaz moved back home for the duration of rehearsals and performances. “Oh my God, they love it,” she laughed. “They’re so happy; they’re like, ‘Can you just keep extending?”
Doing their best to oblige the Diaz family and area theatergoers, Olney has extended the show, directed by Marcos Santana (from the workshop and Broadway casts) with musical direction by Christopher Youstra through Oct. 22. It’s a hot ticket: OTC Artistic Director Jason Loewith declared that “demand for ‘In the Heights’ has been like no other show in our history.”
Got it all
One local arts professional who will be headed to “In the Heights” is voice instructor Lisa Carrier Baker, a professor at American University and MC. “I’d heard about Mili and how wonderful she was from other students,” said Baker. “Then I got the opportunity to meet her and work with her when she was a student at Montgomery College.” She describes the young actor, who participated in MC’s celebrated Summer Dinner Theatre program (where Baker serves as managing director) as well as earning an associate’s degree, as a “gorgeous girl” with a sweet disposition, tremendous work ethic and “that special something that casting directors are looking for—she’s got it all.
“She’s career oriented, very driven—she knows what she wants—but at the same time she’s very humble, very giving and wonderful to work with,” said Baker. “No one wanted her to leave.”
Baker is certain she’ll cry as soon as she hears Diaz singing Nina’s signature song “Breathe,” which explores her feelings about coming home and reconciling ambition, expectations and self-doubt. “And I’m not a crier,” laughed the voice teacher. “I’m just excited to see her hard work already paying off. This is just the beginning; I can’t wait to see where she goes from here. She’s got the whole world in front of her.”
Which is just how the denizens of the Washington Heights, New York neighborhood depicted so vividly in “In the Heights” feel about Nina, who comes back from Stanford riddled with insecurity. “I think we’ve all felt, at some point in our lives, that we aren’t good enough,” said Diaz. “Or everyone expects so much of us and we don’t really know what to do with that pressure.” To play Nina, she said, “I keep that fire alive.”
Which is easy to do, she noted, when dancing in the big shoes she must fill every night onstage. “In The Heights” opened on Broadway in 2008 and was nominated for 14 Tony awards, winning four—and introducing the world to Miranda and DeJesus as well as Christopher Jackson, Alex Lacamoire and Mandy Gonzalez, who originated the role of Nina. Just the challenge of singing “Breathe,” according to Diaz, is enough to keep her in character.
“It’s strange to come back home and have all these people say, ‘We knew you’d get here!’” she said. That experience combined with the uncertainty of a career in acting, even for a successful young woman like herself, helps inform her interpretation of the brilliant-but-faltering Nina. She looks back on the audition process, taking the Vamoose bus from New York for the day to audition for Santana.
“He was incredible,” Diaz remembered. “I was blown away: ‘Who is this man? I want to work with him.’” Even if she didn’t get the role, she thought at the time, “I learned something and I’m happy about that.
“With this career, you never know what’s going to happen,” she pointed out. “After this show is over, I have no job until my next audition, until my next booking. When I play Nina, I can just breathe into it and be myself.”
Diaz also illuminates her portrayal of Nina with the sense of being an outsider that comes from her status as an immigrant and as a Latina. “It wasn’t until I left Maryland that I came in touch with it, and realized that my difference is what makes me me,” she said. “I can use that and show the world that immigrants are this beautiful community that brings so much color to the world.”
Like Nina, Diaz ultimately finds refuge in her community, and comfort coming home. “It’s been an incredible process, and a lot of people are really grateful that we’re here. It’s wonderful what this show brings—it’s a beautiful family, and everyone can relate.”
On a personal level, Diaz loves having a support system close to home, and she loves the way the cast, some New Yorkers and some D.C.-based, move between both worlds.
“It’s really magical,” she said. “There’s such a community feeling here in the D.C. area for actors. It’s really surreal, and I love being back: it’s like coming home again, all the nostalgia, the emotions.”
For the Gaithersburg girl with the big Broadway dreams, there’s only one thing to do—as Nina says—“Just breathe…”
“In The Heights” runs through Oct. 22 on the mainstage at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances start at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with special performances at 7 p.m. Sundays, Oct. 8 and 15, and 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 17. Tickets start at $47. Call 301-924-3400, or visit www.olneytheatre.org.