Visalia’s College of the Sequoias on Friday opens “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical: “In the Heights,” a lively look at Dominican-American life in New York City. We asked director Chris Mangels to sit down with us and offer Five Things to Know about the production.
1. The Miranda connection.
“In the Heights” is Miranda’s first show, written by him while he was in college and first produced on campus. It gathered enough attention to interest some professional producers who eventually took it, him, and a cast of virtual unknowns all the way to Broadway where it launched the careers of many of today’s biggest musical theatre names. I certainly think that Hamilton has made a lot more people aware of his style (and his brilliance). I had heard of “In the Heights” but had never given it a listen until I became obsessed with the “Hamilton” cast recording and started investigating the author and star. After I listened to the show and recognized how universal its themes are – especially given the rich Latino heritage of our community – I knew I HAD to produce it. Given the current political landscape in our nation, I don’t know if the show is getting produced more because of “Hamilton’s” success or because of its relevance, but I know it’s getting a lot more exposure. There is even talk of it finally getting the Hollywood treatment in the coming year with Justin Lin directing and Jay-Z producing.
2. A stellar group of guest artists.
We have put together a fantastic cast of students and community members from across the Central Valley, 33 actors total, as well as an excellent 9 person live band featuring some of our area’s best musicians. The cast is incredibly diverse, with multiple ages and ethnicities coming together through our love for the show. Some of our featured guest artists are:
- Dominic Grijalva is the lead character, Usnavi. Dom directed the excellent Central Valley premiere of the show at the Selma Arts Center in 2015, and I have wanted to work with him as an actor for a long time. We both have a deep love for this show and feel its relevance now more than ever, so he was excited to step into the spotlight for our production.
- Rebekah Robles is Nina, the female lead. She is a former COS Student who won the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Musical Theatre Initiative at the regional festival last year and got to travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in the national festival. She will be transferring to a BFA program in the fall so I am incredibly happy to have her on stage with us one last time.
- Alina Gonzalez is our Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest. After a great run of performances onstage at Reedley’s River City Opera House, I am excited to have her at COS. She is passionate about the show and its message.
- Tulare’s Iris Brito is our Abuela Claudia. I have long been an admirer of Iris’ work at Encore Theatre in Tulare but have never gotten to direct her. She was the first person I thought of for the role when I decided to do the show, so I think it was meant to be that she came in and absolutely nailed the audition.
- Camille Gaston is Daniela, the owner of the salon. I am – without a doubt – one of Camille’s biggest fans, and I think she is a powerhouse in any role, so I am thrilled to have her.
- Juan Luis Guzmán, of Selma, plays Kevin, Nina’s father. I have never worked with Juan before, but I think he is such a beautiful performer (and human being) and I think he will really impress audiences with his heartfelt portrayal.
3. The immigrant angle.
I have a very important responsibility as an artist (and an educator) to serve my community and explore the human experience… not just my own experience but that of my students and my audience. Many people have said that “In the Heights” is so important because it gives a voice to the Latino community and I absolutely agree. It explores the idea of marrying the rich (but strict) traditions of one’s cultural heritage with an evolving modern world… not unlike what “Fiddler on the Roof” did for Jewish immigrant culture in the 1960’s.
It is that universality of theme that I think really struck a chord with me, a middle-aged white man who – though I love hip-hop and salsa music - wasn’t sure that I had any business directing this story. What ultimately settled it for me to take on this project, though, is the current state of politics in America. We are again drawing strong lines between ‘us and them’ and immigrants are being too often – in my opinion – getting labeled as “them.” With the exception of the indigenous Native Americans, we are a country almost completely comprised of immigrants.
This show resonates most for me because it is not just a musical about what it means to be a person of Latin heritage in America today… it is a show about what it means to be ‘American’. This show celebrates diversity as the true backbone of our community and our nation, and I couldn’t be more proud or honored to be sharing that message right now.
4. The music is great.
If you think you know what musical theatre sounds like, but you haven’t listened to “In the Heights,” you are in for a treat. Like “Hamilton,” the score to this show defies genre, and – like “Hamilton” – it is incredibly complicated. Fusing the sounds of hip-hop and salsa with incredibly insightful lyrics, I think it will both surprise and delight our local audience.
5. The set is a star, too.
We had originally hoped to rent the incredibly demanding set (which requires four different two-story structures) from the same company that Selma Arts Center used for their 2015 production, a set which was originally built for the National Tour of the Broadway production. When it wasn’t available for our dates, I set out to reimagine the world of “In the Heights” for our own unique incarnation on the COS Stage, a very intimate space with its own challenges and rewards. I am very proud of what we have done and hope that it resonates with our audience, but ultimately, I just want to create an environment that supports the incredible performances of our cast, because the people are truly what make this show.
In the Heights
- Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 10, and continues through March 19
- College of the Sequoias Theatre, 915 S. Mooney Blvd., Visalia
- cos.ticketleap.com, 559-730-3907
- $24, $22 seniors, $20 students