Lin-Manuel Miranda is the hottest name in American theater thanks to the phenomenal success of his award-winning musicals In the Heights and Hamilton. Now, for the first time, one of his signature works will be produced locally when Heights runs June 29-July 2 at Omaha South High School.
This first-time collaboration between SNAP Productions and the Omaha Schools Foundation finds an urban, Latin-themed play helmed by a community theater devoted to diversity at a school with a majority Latino student body. About half the 37-person cast is drawn from South’s student ranks. Some alums are cast as well. The rest are actors from local university and community theater circles.
Both SNAP artistic director Michal Simpson and South’s Rebecca Noble were already fans of the play when she asked his theater to participate. Besides giving students a chance to work with professionals like Simpson, the production’s a fundraiser. Proceeds will go toward South’s planned $10 million visual and performing arts addition and support SNAP operations.
The project realizes Noble’s long-held desire for South to do its own summer production.
“We are the magnet for the arts and I just felt like we should be out there a little bit more offering opportunities,” said Noble, curriculum specialist for visual and performing arts at South.
She felt Heights was the right vehicle.
“It really speaks directly to the population we serve at South. It’s about the Dominican-Americans who live in the Washington Heights section (Manhattan). I’d been asking for about five years to do this. I played the cast album for my principal Ruben Cano and he went, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s fabulous.'”
Noble and her husband Keith Allerton are theater veterans on-stage and backstage.
“We (still) do shows from time to time,” she said.
Noble wanted South students to get real-world theater experience normally unavailable to them.
“My idea is if we collaborate with a community theater, we then give our students the opportunity to work with professionals. Because so many of our kids say they want to do this for life, they need to have many opportunities to work with different people because you always learn something new doing the art.'”
“SNAP’s a great organization for us to partner with because of their mission, which is diversity, respect, acceptance, and that ties in so well with what we seek at South. I’ve known Michal (Simpson) for a long time, so it was an easy call to ask if he’d like to be involved.”
Other professionals on the show include music director Tyler Gruttemeyer (South’s choral director), choreographer Courtney Stein, lighting designer Joshua Mullady, sound designer Jeff Koontz and set designer Matthew J. Bross.
South alums in the show are Kate (Myers) Madsen as Vanessa and Japrice Green as Usnavi.
Community actors fill some important parts. Roni Shelley Perez, a rising young star on the local theater scene, has the lead role of Nina. Marcel Daly plays her love interest, Benny. Cory Sanchez play Nina’s father.
Noble said while Heights isn’t as well-known as creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, it’s familiar to youth.
“When I went into the choir and drama classes last fall to say we’re going to be doing this, they just went crazy.”
She said theater community peers familiar with the show tell her “we’re so glad this is finally coming to Omaha.”
Simpson said the play’s universal themes resonate strongly with many audiences, especially young people.
“The core values within the show are finding yourself and what you call your home, which may not necessarily be your birth family, but the community you choose. I think we all have that inner thing where we feel like we’ve got to find our niche and the people who feel the way do and think the way we do. It talks to that sense that all of us have in us of looking to figure out where we fit in. It addresses all of that very nicely.”
He feels Miranda has “the ability to pull a lot of elements together to show how they all combine to tell the same story.” He added, “In this show we get a mix of not only traditional musical theater-sounding stuff but a lot of Latin-Puerto Rican flavor and rap elements.”
Plus, the challenges faced by Nina are highly relatable.
“She’s gone off to school to figure out who she’s going to be and she finally understands she doesn’t have to change who she is to move forward to become what she wants to be. She can still stay true to her roots and herself. She doesn’t have to be somewhere else or be someone else. A kind of validation of self.”
Auditions were held in April. Rehearsals began May 15.
“It’s been a good fit,” said Simpson. “It’s been a fun experience. South has a fabulous facility.”
Making the experience memorable he said is “that this is the perfect community for this show – this is like their show and their message.” The only way to stay true to the story was casting it with ethnically appropriate actors. Doing it at South opened those doors.
The June 29 through July 1 shows are at 7:30 p.m. The July 2 show is at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $20
For details and to reserve tickets, visit https://omahasouthintheheights.eventbrite.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.