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‘Heights’ celebrates power of community


When the Theater Department at Santa Rosa Junior College announced last year that the school’s 2017 season would include Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” four Petaluma-based theater artists — few of whom had even met each other yet — all knew at once that they had to be in the show.

“I love ‘In the Heights,’ ” says Gustavo Ceron-Mendoza, of Penngrove. “I’ve loved it ever since I heard the music for the first time.”

A 2013 Petaluma High School graduate, Ceron-Mendoza has been attending SRJC for the last few years, and has appeared in, or worked behind the scenes on the school’s productions of “Mary Poppins,” “Les Miserables,” “Spamalot,” and “Phantom of the Opera.”

“The minute I heard the JC was doing ‘In the Heights,’ I knew I had to come back and audition for it,” says Amelia Parreira, a 2012 Casa Grande grad who took a beginning acting class with John Shillington in 2013, before transferring to Cal Poly to pursue a degree in journalism. Now back in Petaluma, Parreira earned a role, singing and dancing as part of the show’s enormous ensemble. “I’m very excited, and a little nervous,” she says, “but I feel like I can really relate to the story, and I’m so happy to be a part of this project.”

“In the Heights,” which appeared on Broadway in 2008, is set in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, and tells the stories of a multi-cultural community that is largely Domincan.American. It’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, would go on to create and appear in the mega-hit “Hamilton,” and to write songs for Disney’s animated “Moana.”

“I was telling this guy at Whole Foods about the show,” explains Mika Shepherd, a Casa Grande graduate of 2014. “I said, ‘So, have you ever heard of ‘Hamilton,’ or maybe ‘Moana?’ And he said, ‘Oh, ‘Moana!’ Yeah, my daughter loves ‘Moana.’ Then I talked to a friend of mine, and mentioned ‘Hamilton,’ and she said, ‘Um, I’ve heard of it,’ and then I mentioned ‘Moana’ and she said, ‘The guy who wrote music for ‘Moana’ did this? Okay! I’m definitely coming to see your show.’ ‘Moana’ is the hook for people.

“That and the whole political climate,” she adds. Shepherd is also an ensemble member, along with understudying the supporting role of Camila, and working on the costume crew. “This is a play that celebrates all the different places Americans come from. It’s very topical. And it’s also just a great, fun show.”

“ ‘In the Heights’ is ‘West Side Story’ for the current generation,” says Shillington, a longtime SRJC theater instructor, and the director of the current show. “We’ve deliberately made the ensemble big,” he says, acknowledging that there are 33 performers in the cast. “It works well,” he says, “because this is about a large, vibrant neighborhood.”

The story takes place over the 4th of July weekend, and pivots on a winning lottery ticket that may-or-may-not have been purchased by someone in the neighborhood. There are numerous characters, all working to balance survival and their dreams of a better life.

“I would describe this show as real people dealing with real-life situations,” says Ceron-Mendoza. “It shows the challenges so many people face in their day-to-day lives, and the things they have to overcome to keep going.”

“Your heart goes out to everyone in this, every single character,” says Parreira, “because we recognize the universal journey they’re all taking. A lot of people are feeling voiceless right now. In this show, we are the voice for those people.”

A show this big, of course, carries many challenges, among them creating the costumes for such a large cast.

“Costuming a show like this is hard because it’s contemporary, it’s East Coast, and it’s a representation of a very specific neighborhood that actually exists,” notes Ariel Allen, assistant costume designer for “In the Heights.”

Allen grew up in southern Marin, and moved to Petaluma three years ago. This is her second SRJC show, having previously worked on “The Music Man.”

“The biggest challenge,” she says, “costume-wise, is getting the cast to step out of their comfort zone — in terms of getting used to the ballroom-dancing shoes so many of them have to wear. These shoes have three-inch-high heels! Some people aren’t used to dancing in shoes like that. But as a costumer, it’s a real treat, because the shoes are so glitzy and shiny.”

Speaking of the dancing, Shepherd says the show’s specific blend of Salsa and hip-hop has been forcing the cast to work extra hard, as the steps are new to many of them. The pace, too, is extremely up-tempo.

“The timing kicks my butt,” laughs Shepherd. “We were running the show last night, and as we were dancing, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I have my dance moves down,’ and, ‘Hey! Cool! I’m short, so I get to dance at the front of the ensemble, so my parents will see me.’ But then I’m going, ‘Wait! I think my timing is a little off from the others. But I can’t follow them because they’re behind me!’ It’s kind of hard to match the dancing-rhythm of people you can’t actually see.”

That, jokes Allen, is one thing the costume designers don’t have to deal with.

“There are definite benefits to not being on stage,” she laughs.

As for being in the ensemble — supporting the named characters who have most of the speaking lines — all four theater artists agree that being a part of a strong ensemble is something to be proud of.

“To some people, being in the ensemble may seem like you have a really small part,” says Parreira, “but when you sit out there in the audience and listen to the ensemble, all of our voices together, it’s just so powerful, and you can hear the unity of the entire cast.”

“And it’s really fun,” says Shepherd. “Everyone in this cast has a reason for being there, a part of the story to tell, and it’s our unity that makes it so powerful. As an artist, that’s a fantastic opportunity.”

In addition to the artistic challenges, many castmembers have strong personal reasons for being in “In the Heights.”

“The main reason I want to be in this show,” allows Ceron-Mendoza, “is for my parents. Like some of the characters in the show, my parents’ main dream is for their children to have a better life. As an immigrant from Mexico, giving them a chance to see me, on stage, in this show, is just such a very special thing. Because I get to celebrate my heritage — with the rest of the cast, with my community, and with my parents.”

(Email David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)