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.”