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‘In the Heights’ is command performance for St. Louis’ Latino actors but messages cross cultures

Natasha Toro (Vanessa) and Marshall Jennings (Benny) are shown on the bottom row. Jesse Muñoz (Usnavi) and Cassandra Lopez (Nina) are on the top.
Provided | Autumn Rinaldi | R-S Theatrics
Natasha Toro (Vanessa) and Marshall Jennings (Benny) are shown on the bottom row. Jesse Muñoz (Usnavi) and Cassandra Lopez (Nina) are on the top. "

Way before his blockbuster play “Hamilton,”  Lin-Manuel Miranda was a college student, struggling with a script about his upbringing in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood.

On Friday, Miranda’s early musical “In the Heights” comes to St. Louis' .Zack Theatre in the Grand Center area. The R-S Theatrics play tackles one of today's toughest subjects: immigration. It's a huge draw for local Latino actors and those from other states, including one theater professional from New York City.

Jesse Muñoz cleared his schedule to audition for this St. Louis production and is house-sitting for a former voice teacher during rehearsal and production.

“This is my dream show,” Muñoz said. “I’ll do it anywhere, anytime.”

‘It blew me away’

In 2008, actor and playwright Miranda debuted the role of the bodega-store owner Usnavi when "Heights" opened on Broadway. By the time Muñoz made it to New York, Miranda was no longer on stage but the magic was.

Jesse Muñoz plays Usnavi, whose name was inspired by character's parents' sighting of a U.S. Navy ship as they arrived in New York.
File | Provided | Jesse Muñoz

For the teenager with Mexican and Spanish heritage, who grew up in Las Vegas with hip-hop, the play was life-changing for Muñoz.

“To be able to see that in a Broadway show … to integrate all these different elements of my life, I mean, it blew me away,” Muñoz said.

Now he's playing Usnavi in R-S Theatrics’ production of “In the Heights.”  He feels some pressure, playing a role Miranda originated

“Most definitely,” Muñoz said. “A: because he wrote the show, and B: because he’s such a charismatic guy and he made the role so iconic.”

St. Louisan Carmen Garcia, who plays Abuela Claudia — a grandmother figure to Usnavi — returned to the local professional stage after 20 years, just to be in this play.

“I had to do something to get into this production. Even if was just interning, I had to become involved with this production; it’s that important. But I’m really happy that I’ve got a really nice role.”

‘A story about you’

Carmen Garcia plays Abuela Claudia. The actor's daughter Isa played Nina in a recent Gateway Center for Performing Arts High School production of In the Heights and is interning and has a small role in the R-S Theatrics production.
File | Provided | Carmen Garcia

Garcia, whose parents emigrated from Mexico, is proud to be part of the first generation to be born in the United States.

But this production of “In the Heights” comes at a time of rising national anti-immigration sentiment. Still, its story of people who come to the United States from other nations is really the story of almost all Americans, a point that’s illustrated by the makeup of the cast.

“If you’ve ever been on Cherokee Street, you’ve seen all the different colors that you see on stage in the show,” Garcia said. “We have a few African-Americans, we have some Caucasians; it’s a mix. It looks like St. Louis.”

Christina Rios founded R-S Theatrics.
Provided | Christina Rios

Christina Rios, R-S Theatrics’ founder and artistic director, said the script calls for half the 20 actors to be Latino, or LatinX, a newer, gender-neutral term. 

“There are people who were just flabbergasted when I said, ‘You know, everyone who is a LatinX performer who auditioned is not in this show,’’ Rios said.

Rios said some in the local theater community doubted there would be enough Latino actors to choose from. 

“The inferred question was, ‘Where are you going to find this many brown people?’” Rios said. “There’s actually a lot of us; maybe we don’t come to your auditions because we don’t feel welcome.”

In fact, around three-dozen Latino actors were among the more than 100 who came to audition for “In the Heights.” Some were already part of what Rios calls the “R-S Theatrics family.” But “In the Heights” brought many new faces to the table.

“So it’s kind of like Thanksgiving at my house for the first time,” Rios said.

In the Heights actors practice for a scene in which a fight that breaks out during a neighborhood dance in this July 26, 2017 photo.
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

Old and new, the 20-member cast is a big stretch for a small theater company.

“This is the largest production, to date, that we have ever even remotely thought about doing,” Rios said.

But Rios feels “Heights” is an important show to tackle, and not just for its large Latino presence. She hopes audiences see a much bigger story.

“I don’t want to tell a story about brown people that live in Washington Heights and how interesting they are and how well they dance and sing,” Rios said. “But rather a story about you … and remind you of that time that you disappointed your parents and remind you of that time that your grandmother told you something that you'll never forget and remind you of that time that you didn't really know where you belong.”

Here's the 2008 Tony Awards performance of the "In the Heights" opening number with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

If you go:

‘In the Heights’ presented by R-S Theatrics

Where: .Zack Theatre, 3224 Locust St.

When: Friday-Sunday, Aug. 18-Sept. 3

Admission: $15-$25

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

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