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Springfield Little Theatre, Mosaic Arts Collective present 'In the Heights' at the Landers

Courtesy Springfield Little Theatre

A collaborative production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning musical opens January 26 at the Landers Theatre.

Springfield Little Theatre and Mosaic Arts Collective will gift Springfield with a stage full of vibrant music and dance, as well as an engaging story of community versus gentrification, with the musical In the Heights at the Landers Theatre, 311 E. Walnut St.

The collaborative production opens Friday, January 26 and runs through February 11. On KSMU's Arts News, we talked with one of the show's directors and two cast members.

In addition to the show itself, Mosaic Arts Collective co-founder Amanda Snead told us of a special art exhibit in the lobby of the Landers, with a free opening reception tonight (Friday, January 19).

"We like to showcase art from the communities we are producing shows for," Snead says. "(This exhibit) will be featuring Latine, Latino and Hispanic visual arts."

The reception will also include local Mexican-owned businesses Don Toño, Sweet Pieces Bakery and Purple Burrito. It's from 6 to 9 p.m. tonight. The artwork will all be available for sale, and will remain on display through the run of In the Heights, until February 11.

"In the Heights is such a vibrant, uplifting story," says Amanda Snead, who co-directs the production along with her Mosaic co-founder Nki Calloway.

"It's about a really tightly-knit community (in the largely Latine-based Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City). And they're really struggling at the top of Manhattan because their community is on the brink of transition" — i.e., gentrification.

"Bigger corporations are coming in and looking to take over the barrio" from the mom-and-pop businesses that have been the backbone of the neighborhood. "And it talks about the hopes and dreams of three different generations, and what it looks like as they forge their identity through that transition and relationships."

Snead calls the production "an inspiring story" about some local business owners who decide to sell, "and some that decide to take a stand and not (sell), and stick it out."

In the show, Tyler Simpson portrays Usnavi de la Vega, owner of a small bodega along with his cousin. He's not only a corner grocery store owner, "he also kind of takes care of the matriarch of the community, Abuela Claudia," Simpson says, referencing a Spanish word for "grandmother."

"Throughout the show he deals with taking care of Abuela, handling his business, and then also, his relationship with Vanessa (Garcia)."

The latter is Usnavi's love interest, played in SLT's production by Elisabeth Petruso.

"We see this relationship bud," Petruso says. "I guess you'll have to come to the show to see what happens with that! No spoilers here!"

Vanessa works at a salon in the barrio, doing nails and hair. Petruso says, "I think she's a really strong, independent female character, and she represents a lot of strong Latine, Hispanic women just in my life and other lives that I know. So, she's really fun — she brings that fire to the barrio and to the cast. Vanessa is looking to see what else is beyond the barrio. She wants to get out and start her own life, and be more than just (a part of) the community — which is a really interesting perspective, in a show that's so strong on community in the barrio."

In the Heights was created by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes and has become something of a cultural phenomenon.

Asked what she hoped the Mosaic/Little Theatre production would bring to the Springfield community, Snead says, "The first thing is to see that we have so much diverse talent here waiting and ready for safe, equitable and inclusive spaces to enjoy the arts and be a part of the arts. So I hope that people see the representation on and off stage, to know that art is for them too, whether it's visual or performing arts. And I hope that there are people in the audience that get to see themself onstage in one way or another. This show is not an 'ensemble' show — it was originally, like, between 15 and 20 people-ish, and there weren't children in it."

The Springfield production boasts a cast of 60!

Snead says, "And so we really wanted to say, if we're going to represent this community, we want to do it well. I hope audiences see that we are trying to display and represent a community that we know and love, that are our neighbors, and people we work with, and go, 'What a beautiful culture' — and also, 'What a beautiful opportunity.' "

Petruso says, "I've done musical theater and performing arts since I was really young, and I have never done a production like this before. I think there's something so special about getting this Latine representation. It's not like we're bringing this community to Springfield — it's already here. We're just giving it the space to be seen and heard. And I'm so honored to be a part of that. But also, the cast community is unlike anything I've ever seen before. We will have people bring food to each of these rehearsals. It's a true family, and I think that reads both on and off stage. It's another level of the community just in general, that I'm really excited for Springfield to see."

Simpson adds, "I think that's a big reason why Nki and Amanda started Mosaic was to highlight people in our community that usually don't get a chance to be represented, which is such a beautiful thing to be a part of. It's really special that Mosaic is doing the work it's doing in Springfield, because it's creating this really awesome community of people who usually aren't represented in the arts. A lot of people in this show, it's the first show that they've ever done — which is also super-exciting, because I've also been doing theater for quite a while now. So to experience other peoples' first time onstage is something that's really cool."

A biligual show for Spanish-speakers and English-speakers

The show is bilingual, Snead says.

"There is just as much Spanish in the show (as English). The story does a great job for non-Spanish speakers to follow, and also for native speakers to feel like home. So we do represent those that it's their first generation here; those that may have emigrated; and those that are second-generation. And you'll hear that, whether it's in accents — or lack thereof — or interpreting for one another. It's a playground of dialect for sure."

The various Latine communities represented in the show are also represented musically, and as choreographer, Snead has had to incorporate those elements. "The first thing that we've done is by casting incredible, wonderful dancers, that I have now learned are also incredible athletes! Just like the music is a fusion of hip-hop and Latin rhythms and ballads, the dances (are) as well. We try to approach it as authentically as we can. I can think of seven or eight styles off the top of my head that are included. Sometimes the dance is to evoke emotion and to tell the story, and other times it's to represent a very specific dance, to say "this is a salsa rhythm, this is a merengue rhythm. It's a smorgasbord of dance styles."

Performances of In the Heights will run Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., January 26 through February 11. Tickets range from $17 to $37, and are available at springfieldlittletheatre.org, or by calling the Landers box office at 417-869-1334.

Snead closed our interview by mentioning that there is now a "Gift-A-Ticket" program at SLT.

"That allows patrons, community members, to purchase tickets on behalf of those that might otherwise not be able to see the show," she says.

You'll find that on Little Theatre's website.

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning Arts News. Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's Ozzie Award in 2006.