DOWNEY — Capitalizing on the popularity of “Hamilton” creator and star Lin Manuel Miranda, The Downey High School Theatre Department is in the home stretch of preparations for their upcoming performances of “In the Heights.”
“In the Heights” first hit Broadway in 2008, with music and lyrics produced by Hamilton’s Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. It went on to be nominated for 13 Tony Awards, walking away with four including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Choreography.
The musical tells the story of the people living in the barrio of Washington Heights, New York, and how the neighborhood is turned on its head when one of its residents wins a $96,000 lottery.
According to Theater Director Christopher Nelson, “In the Heights” suits the community of Downey.
“Lin Manuel literally wrote it because there’s only one Broadway play for Puerto Ricans, and he wrote a play specifically for Latinos,” said Nelson. “With the population I got across the street, I was excited to bring them this because they have a way to relate to it.”
Of course, many of the students are also excited because of the show’s ties to the recent smash-hit, cultural-phenomenon “Hamilton.”
However, despite sharing the same writer and some of his stylings, the two plays could not be any more different.
“It’s so different than Hamilton,” said Nelson. “Hamilton is so dense with historical information, whereas this is just a character-driven, pleasant story about life. It doesn’t go over your head at any point. There’s a lot of lyrics, but it’s about life. It’s not about anything other than what life is, the experience we all know.”
Nelson’s 32-member cast is comprised of everything from freshmen to seniors, honors academics to athletes, dancers, cheerleaders, singers, and band members. He even casted a Miss Downey Princess.
“It’s a collection from everybody from the campus, which is really great,” said Nelson. “It’s the 22nd largest campus in the country, so it’s nice to get a sampling of all 4,200 of them.”
Senior Giovanni Ferreira, 17, will take center stage in the lead role of Usnavi, the owner of a small bodega and the narrator of the play.
“He grew up poor, and he obviously is affiliated with the culture of the urban, more rural part of New York City, but he also is very connected to his culture,” said Ferreira. “He’s very proud of being Latino; he thinks it’s what connects his entire neighborhood together and makes them family even though they’re not related and they come from different parts of the world.”
One of the challenges with the Usnavi character is tackling many of the hip-hop and rap elements of his lyrics. If that’s not enough pressure, Miranda himself originated the role.
“I didn’t have a lot of hip-hop experience,” said Ferreira. “I’m a big fan of Lin Manuel Miranda; I was even before I was casted as Usnavi. I’ve seen Hamilton, I’ve listened to the soundtrack many times. I’ve listened to In the Heights. I love his work. I look up to him.”
“I know that I won’t become a hip-hop master like he is…to be able to play a role that he played, it’s a lot of pressure. There’s a lot that I need to do.”
“Everything needs to be very precise, because the way that he wrote the music, lyrics, and script are all very precise and I have to do it just right. It’s a challenge but I welcome it.”
Junior Angie Valenzuela, 17, will play Nina Rosario.
“She’s the one who made it out of New York. Where they live in Washington Heights, they don’t really have a lot of money, an none of them really got to go to college,” said Valenzuela. “My character was the only one who was able to make it out of state and actually get a good education after high school. She goes to Stanford university, but it’s expensive. She got a scholarship, but it doesn’t pay for all the books, and there’s still other expenses. She’s working two jobs, her grades end up slipping, she loses her scholarship, and she has to figure out how to tell her family when she comes back home for the family…”
Valenzuela’s character will also struggle with a love interest that her family does not approve of.
According to Valenzuela, preparation for the show has required immense amounts of dedication and work hours from each cast member; almost every day for the last several months.
“Our director, he’s great; he treats us like adults,” said Valenzuela. “Every now and then, we forget ourselves that we have school, and classes and homework and tests to keep on track. A lot of it is time management. If time management isn’t great then grades are going to go downhill and the play is going to be a disaster. Lunchtime, my friends and I, they always see me; I’m learning lines. It’s all I’m doing right now: go home, do my homework, practice my songs, practice choreography, [and] lines.”
In the Heights will be performed from Thursday, March 21 to Saturday, March 23. Tickets are $15 and available now on the Downey Theatre website.