Arts & Culture

North County Theatre Works debuts with musical 'In the Heights'

Ethan LaCaro, center, and the cast of "In The Heights" run through a North County Theatre Works rehearsal. They'll perform the musical on July 3 and 5 at the Templeton Performing Arts Center.
Ethan LaCaro, center, and the cast of "In The Heights" run through a North County Theatre Works rehearsal. They'll perform the musical on July 3 and 5 at the Templeton Performing Arts Center.

The cofounders of San Luis Obispo County’s newest community theater group like a challenge.

That’s why Catherine Kingsbury and Marcy Goodnow picked a contemporary Broadway musical – rather than a tried-and-true classic — to launch North County Theatre Works.

“We just wanted to put ourselves on the map as a group that will do some new, fresh ideas,” Kingsbury said.

North County Theatre Works makes its debut next weekend at the Templeton Performing Arts Center with “In the Heights,” which chronicles the lives and dreams of three generations in New York City’s diverse Washington Heights neighborhood. Kingsbury directs the production, with Goodnow as assistant director.

“At its heart, the story is really about what you call home, what you call family. I think that resonates today,” said Kingsbury, who took over Templeton High School’s theater department this past school year. She’s also the manager of the Templeton Performing Arts Center, which is located on the Templeton High campus.

Kingsbury, who previously taught at Atascadero High School, said she and Goodnow started North County Theatre Works earlier this year to combat what they see as “a dearth of community theater” in the North County.

They hope to eventually present two productions a year — a play and a musical.

“We needed a community theater where we could do passion projects, something that really inspired us,” said Goodnow, who has taught drama, leadership and dance at Paso Robles High School for five years.

“It’s such a pleasure to do something that really challenges the audience” and the actors alike, she added.

“In the Heights” fit the bill. The musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2008, features music and lyrics by acclaimed “Hamilton” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her play “Water by the Spoonful.”

Winner of four Tony Awards, including best musical, and a Grammy Award for best musical show album, “In the Heights” takes place over three summer days in a tight-knit, predominately Latino community on the brink of big changes. (Although the play is primarily in English, some dialogue and song lyrics are in Spanish.)

Bodega owner Usnavi (Ethan LaCaro) serves as the musical’s narrator. Raised by neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia (Janine Elich) after his parents died, he longs to return to the country of his birth, the Dominican Republic.

Usnavi’s crush, Vanessa (Amber Burgh), who works at a beauty salon owned by the gossipy Daniela (Goodnow), just wants to get out of the barrio.

Meanwhile, struggling college student Nina Rosario (Lauren Josephs, who doubles as the play’s vocal director) has returned to Washington Heights to tell her parents, Kevin (Michael David Rosario) and Camilia (Priscilla McRoberts), that she’s dropped out of Stanford University.

Back home, Nina realizes she has feelings for Benny (Samuel Fierro), who works for her family’s taxi cab company.

The rest of the cast includes Jordan Peralta as Usnavi’s cousin, Sonny; Joe Pandosh as Sonny’s friend, Graffiti Pete; Brianna Josephs as Vanessa’s friend, Carla; and Jaron Fuglie as the pushcart vendor known as the Piragua Guy.

“In the Heights” features set design by Garry Hansen, lighting design by Kody Cava and sound by Brett Ogburn and Ryan Flores. Courtney Brock is lead choreographer.

Josephs, who saw “In the Heights” on Broadway in 2010, praised the musical’s realistic characters, fun choreography and lively soundtrack, which combines rap, hip-hop, salsa and ballads such as “Breathe” – in which Nina worries that she has let her community down.

“She’s disappointed herself, but she also feels she’s disappointed … everyone in the neighborhood who’s watched her grow up,” explained Josephs, who graduated from Atascadero High in 2010. She works as an instructional assistant at San Benito Elementary School in Atascadero and serves as Kingsbury’s assistant director at Templeton High.

“(‘In the Heights’) isn’t big tap numbers and jazz hands,” Josephs said. “It’s really human, really personal.”

Burgh, her co-star, also enjoys the musical’s contemporary approach.

“It’s just a new way of telling a new kind of story,” said the actress, who will be a senior at Paso Robles High in the fall.

Although “In the Heights” is “accessible to every generation,” Kingsbury said, her cast has still had to do some research to get into their roles. They’ve watched an HBO special about the original Broadway production and chatted about what it’s like to live in New York with those in the know.

For instance, although “In the Heights” features a scene set in an urban nightclub, many of the younger cast members have never gone clubbing. “There’s a lot of sharing of experiences in that way,” Kingsbury said.

According to Kingsbury, “In the Heights” features adult cast and crew members from Atascadero, Morro Bay and San Miguel, as well as current and former students of Atascadero High, Paso Robles High and Templeton High.

“It’s such a great opportunity to show the community what talent is here and show them new work and exciting work,” Goodnow said, while showcasing the Templeton Performing Arts Center as a venue.

“If people come and see this show, they’re going to love it,” she said.

“In the Heights”

7 p.m. July 3, 2 and 7 p.m. July 5

Templeton Performing Arts Center, 1200 S. Main St., Templeton

$15, $10 seniors and students

434-5845 or