Ripped from the Headlines, The Gringo Aims to Be a Musical for Our Time

Choreographer Christoper Page-Sanders leads The Gringo cast in rehearsal.
Choreographer Christoper Page-Sanders leads The Gringo cast in rehearsal. ANDY PAULISSEN

Choreographer Christopher Page-Sanders just wants all the dancers in the room to be chill.

"With your arms you can do whatever you want, but it has to be really chill. Chill and relaxed. Chill and relaxed. Yes? Clear? Has anybody ever been to Miami?" he asks the group of auditionees lining the basement dance studio in University City's Center of Creative Arts, or COCA. One says no. "There's a certain atmosphere in Miami that we are looking for," Page-Sanders continues. "Chill, relaxed, cool, clean."

It's not Miami; it's St. Louis in February, and it's dark outside, and freezing cold. Inside, under the fluorescent lights, everyone is wearing shorts, sweatpants or leggings along with their dance shoes. But when Page-Sanders turns the music on, from the rhythm pulsing through the room, you'd think you were at a party in Little Havana.

The concentration is fierce as Page-Sanders shouts counts over the music. The dancers move across the wood floor, working to match the hip-hop-influenced choreography to the beats. You can tell it's not what they are used to performing at a typical musical-theater audition.

And it's not supposed to be. These local performers aren't auditioning for a traditional, Golden Age Broadway musical like you've seen at the Muny or the Fabulous Fox. They're instead trying out for the new musical serving as the local headliner for St. Lou Fringe this month. The festival, which takes place in Grand Center each summer, doesn't produce your grandma's idea of the arts: We're talking new work, uncensored, unjuried performance and exposure for semi-professional performers.

That makes St. Lou Fringe a perfect fit for this particular musical, simply titled The Gringo, which is set to premiere at .ZACK August 16 to 19. Written, directed and music-directed by 28-year-old St. Louisan Colin Healy, The Gringo takes place between two graffiti-covered Miami neighborhoods — Overtown, which is historic but rundown, and Wynwood, which Healy describes as "graffiti and gentrification central."

The script follows a young street artist named Ishmael who arrives in town shortly after a beloved local street artist known as El Fantasma is shot to death by police. The story follows Ishmael as he confronts his white privilege in unfamiliar territory and reveals the stories of others he meets along the way, leading to the musical's ultimate question: If your home is hell and you have the privilege to leave, do you? Or do you stay and fight for it?

If any of this storyline seems familiar, well, it should. While The Gringo takes place in Miami, it deals with themes that would be recognizable anywhere in 2018, such as internet fame, hook-up culture and police brutality — and offers particularly uncomfortable parallels for St. Louis. But from the look of the audition turnout, St. Louis is here for it. And if this production team's hopes come true, this year's St. Lou Fringe festival won't be the last stop for The Gringo: It will instead be the one that helps launch it.

Samantha Madison rehearses the song "On the Internet," which takes place on Tinder. - ANDY PAULISSEN
Samantha Madison rehearses the song "On the Internet," which takes place on Tinder.

To trace the beginnings of The Gringo, you have to back up to 2013, a time when tragedy struck in Miami — a trauma not so different from the shooting of Michael Brown, which galvanized St. Louis the following year.

On August 6, 2013, Miami Beach Police found local graffiti artist Israel Hernandez-Llach, also known as "Reefa," tagging an abandoned McDonald's that was already covered in graffiti. The eighteen-year-old ran, beginning a chase involving more than half a dozen officers, according to Miami New Times. The chase ultimately concluded with Officer Jorge Mercado tasing Hernandez-Llach in the chest. The Colombian immigrant later died at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

Six months later, the medical examiner would call Hernandez-Llach's passing a "sudden cardiac death" and declare the incident an accident, according to the Miami Herald. Hernandez-Llach's death led to his parents filing a lawsuit against the city of Miami Beach and its police department for using excessive force. It also cued protests against the police and debate about the use of Tasers.

At the time, Healy was studying theater education and acting at Florida International University in Miami. Having grown up in the suburbs of Miami, he found that Hernandez-Llach's death struck close to home literally.

As night fell a day or two after the teen's death, Healy wrote down two little words that served as the title for a story idea: "The Gringo." As he sat in his 350-square-foot West Miami apartment, Healy began exploring the characters that now make up the story. It wasn't long after that he realized that Hernandez-Llach, who was only a few years younger, had gone to his high school.

"I thought to myself, 'Wow, that could've been me,'" Healy remembers.

But that mindset wouldn't last.

"Once I started digging into the story a little more, I'm like, 'No, it was never going to be me,'" Healy says. "It really started this whole journey of privilege awakening in a way for me, like realizing despite anything — despite anything that's not whiteness and straightness and maleness, it doesn't matter. I still have that privilege, regardless if I'm financially and socially equal to someone else ... I didn't ever see that growing up, and it was this event that was the turning point for me."

Often sporting a baseball cap with his beard and glasses, Healy today has a demeanor that's more low-key composer than Broadway diva. But while he'd likely blend in with the twentysomethings at your favorite Cherokee Street bar, there's a big difference: Few people his age have had a project like The Gringo consuming their thoughts for five-plus years or put the same kind of passion and drive into bringing it to fruition.

It was after his wakeup call while researching Hernandez-Llach's story, Healy says, that he truly dove into writing the show. Thinking back on it now, he thinks he might have been aware of his privilege at a much younger age had he grown up in St. Louis and not Miami. South Florida's melting-pot makeup can be deceptive.

But time passed. Healy went on tour with the Republik, the band he was a part of at the time, and The Gringo fell to the wayside. That is, until a year later, when Michael Brown was shot.

Writer, director and music director Colin Healy saw parallels between the shooting of Michael Brown and Israel Hernandez-Llach's death after being tased. - ANDY PAULISSEN
Writer, director and music director Colin Healy saw parallels between the shooting of Michael Brown and Israel Hernandez-Llach's death after being tased.

That year, Healy moved to St. Louis, where he had family and had accepted a job teaching and music-directing in the vocal department at COCA. He came to town about a month after prosecutors announced Officer Darren Wilson would face no criminal charges for the fatal shooting. And it was then that he realized that The Gringo needed to be told.

"That was the moment where I remembered what I was writing before, and I was like, 'Well, this is relevant,'" Healy says. "And obviously I was paying attention to Michael Brown and all that when it happened, and it was in the back of my mind. But once I moved up here I was like, 'Yep, this is the story that I need to resurrect now,' because I think what happened down there is pretty similar."

The result may be a musical that stars a white kid, but it is not about a white kid rather, Ishmael is what Healy calls a "backseat protagonist" who tries and fails to drive the story. Instead, The Gringo spotlights the stories of the people Ishmael comes in contact with, many of whom are people of color with complex lives and experiences much different than his own.

The story deals with modern issues — and is filled with elements that plant it solidly in the 21st century. Dialogue only makes up about five to ten minutes of the show; the rest of the play is told via music and choreography influenced by the people and cultures depicted on stage. The score includes many forms of Latin music, including salsa, merengue and bossanova, with rap also making the occasional cameo.

The dancing, too, is inspired by the various music styles and physicalizes the themes of the show. Case in point: One of the songs, "On the Internet," takes places on Tinder, with the characters on their phones and yes, Page-Sanders cleverly ties a swiping motion into the dancing. And upon a second viewing, you'll notice the way his choreography in the opening number, "The Streets Are Still Grey in Miami," uses dance to refer to the various themes and relationships you learn about later in the show.

In its simplest terms, The Gringo is a love triangle between characters of varying levels of privilege. But unlike many musicals, it takes the thin archetypes you're accustomed to seeing on stage — the ingenue, the jealous boyfriend, the best friend — and completely breaks them down by the second act, showing how much more there is to each one, just like in real life.

"I think what Ishmael learns in the show is to view those who we don't think about because they're not on our radar, to view those people when we're thrust into their world, to view them complexly. And I think the more we don't put others in little boxes, the less we'll hate each other," Healy says.

It's an idea worth listening to in St. Louis.

"Despite the screaming and yelling we do, we don't see each other complexly a lot in this city and in the county and the metro area at large," Healy says. "The Delmar Divide is one of those many lines that we draw, and stories like The Gringo seek to blur those things and make people of different classes and colors see each other a little bit more complexly and understand that our lives are as complex as theirs."

The Gringo "is one of the few times where as an artist I get to use my art as activism," says Alicia Reve Like, who plays Kahlo. - ANDY PAULISSEN
The Gringo "is one of the few times where as an artist I get to use my art as activism," says Alicia Reve Like, who plays Kahlo.

Matthew R. Kerns, the executive director of St. Lou Fringe, definitely sees the potential in such a story.

Kerns has come to the audition for The Gringo to scout talent for a different part of the festival, the national headlining act. Stepping out of the dance studio, Kerns explains that he connected with Healy during St. Lou Fringe last year, when he hired him to be the music director for that year's national headliner.

He picked a good person for the job — beyond Healy's obvious credentials at COCA and his work with the Republik, he has extensive training in both music and theater. He began with violin lessons at age five, later picking up both voice and a number of other instruments, including piano, guitar and drums. He also has experience performing, starting with a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at age fourteen and eventually working with some semi-professional companies in Ft. Lauderdale.

Healy went to public performing-arts elementary and middle schools, both magnet schools that he says were formative in exposing him to music as well as a variety of people and cultures. After high school, Healy returned to his alma mater to music-direct competitive high school theater.

It didn't take long for Kerns to see Healy's potential.

"It was almost instantly where I was like, 'This kid is going places. This kid is going, like, all the way.' He's so talented, and I wanted to, and continue to want to, help him do exactly what the Fringe does, which is incubate new work and elevate it to the next place," Kerns recalls. "And so I wanted to give him an opportunity, because I really feel like The Gringo has some chops to it to go far."

In the summer of 2016, Healy held his first audition for The Gringo, presenting a reading of scenes from Act One that featured the three leading actors who have been with the project ever since. Additional actors were brought on board to perform a full staged reading and create a cast recording. After The Gringo was picked up by St. Lou Fringe, Healy also found himself in the producer's chair, cueing the creation of his theater production and education company, Fly North Music, to see The Gringo to the fringe festival.

The enthusiasm has been palpable. That cast recording? It had a goal of $2,000 on fundraising site Indiegogo, and it ended up earning $5,797. The funds needed to produce The Gringo at the fringe festival? They've all been secured thanks to a number of local fundraisers and 50-plus backers, who have ranged from friends to students' parents to strangers. And those staged readings that helped get all of this started? Well, we'll get to that in a moment.

If history is any indication, St. Lou Fringe could only increase the momentum. In 2016, for example, a show titled Count Time! that debuted at the festival. The play tells the story of a woman named Patricia Prewitt who was wrongfully incarcerated for her husband's murder. Count Time!, which received an award for best production at the fringe festival, went on to become a Missouri Arts Council touring show and now tours around the state. Some of the national headlining acts, too, head to the East Coast after incorporating the feedback they get at St. Lou Fringe.

But before The Gringo can reap any potential benefits from the festival, it needs a cast. Most of the principal roles will be played by the actors who originated the parts, but spots for a number of supporting characters and the ensemble have yet to be filled.

Kerns heads to a small music classroom at COCA, where auditionees are now lined up out in the hallway, music books in hand. The air is a mix of nervous energy and chilly February temperatures creeping through the windows behind the casting table as each performer enters to sing a chosen cut of music.

One by one, they give their sheet music to Healy, who is in his element accompanying at the piano. He sight-reads everything he's handed, from staples cut from Chicago and Hamilton to more obscure samples from lesser-known musicals. Sometimes he asks the singer to demonstrate an additional song. Sometimes he has them perform scales to assess their vocal range. Every time, the casting team discusses their options after the potential actor leaves the room. Ultimately, the cast ends up being made up entirely of St. Louis actors — a rarity for many productions, Page-Sanders muses later, but also one of Healy's goals for the St. Lou Fringe version.

Page-Sanders, a COCA-kid-turned-teaching-artist and professional dancer, is impressed with the number of actors that showed up to audition.

"I just think that when it comes to art, I think that people just want that opportunity to be a part of something new. And especially in St. Louis, I think artists of color are so underrepresented in the community," he says. "So to know that there is somebody who wants to tell one of the many stories of our community makes people want to be a part of that."

In the end, they land both a diverse and accomplished group. The majority of the cast is made up of people of color, including actors of African American, Latinx and Asian descent. There are a wide variety of backgrounds: an actor from rural Missouri, an activist, a single mom, a few college students. Some are prominent community theater actors with nine-to-five jobs; another is a dance instructor who attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy; still another is a COCA grad with a number of Muny credits.

It's not until mid-July that the cast starts rehearsals for St. Lou Fringe. In a phone interview a few days before rehearsals begin, Kern explains that he thinks The Gringo has the essential ingredients to be a success: a story that is compelling and real, and music that is smart, innovative and unlike anything else out there.

"I see The Gringo being picked up by regional theaters across the country," he says of its potential following St. Lou Fringe, "and I really could seriously see The Gringo in an off-Broadway run."

The dancers work through a scene. - ANDY PAULISSEN
The dancers work through a scene.

On January 21, 2017, Healy wasn't thinking about St. Lou Fringe success, much less making it off-Broadway. That Saturday, the real question for The Gringo was simply how COCA could fit all the excited people who'd turned out for its staged reading into the facility's small blackbox theater.

While that evening offered the second staged reading, it was the first time the story would be performed in full. Theatergoers showed up in droves, forming a line that stretched through COCA's lobby and down the connecting hallway. Staffers had to add chairs along the walls and put the start time on hold as they worked to accommodate the crowd. By the time the theater reached capacity, a long line still waited outside. Healy had people put down their contact information, already mulling the idea of another reading to accommodate the demand.

St. Louis-based actor Jon Hey witnessed the incredible reaction.

"It seems so passe to say it was electric, but it just was kind of alive," Hey remembers. "The audience was excited and very supportive, the cast was in it and supportive and really excited — I just didn't get the feeling that anybody had been dragged to the theater that night."

The enthusiasm only continued after the show, as audience members chattered about their favorite songs, characters and parts of the story. Hey found himself swept up in similar feelings. "A couple of the songs we just thought were brilliant," he recalls, "not only in how it was staged but how it was written and what he was trying to depict and the story he was trying to tell."

Original cast member Alicia Reve Like can't put her finger on what made that reading so successful — maybe it's because people know Healy is talented and want to see his work, she suggests, or because it was free, or simply because of the magic of theater. A professional singer and actor as well as a COCA teaching artist, she will be reprising her leading role, Kahlo, in the fringe festival production.

"The reason why I've stuck around besides just looking at the project and being like, 'This is so cool!' is it's one of the few times where as an artist I get to use my art as activism. It doesn't come along often," says Like. "So it's not often that as an actor you get a script, you look at it and you're like, 'Whoa, this has to be done.'"

The crowd at the January 2017 reading only affirmed her feeling that The Gringo is something special.

"That also solidified for me, like, 'We have a gem on our hands. Like, maybe we have the next hot thing in the country.' Because everything has a starting point. Like, you don't get Hamilton overnight. You don't get Hamilton in a year. You get Hamilton over years. And Colin has already put in years of writing and composing."

Christopher Page-Sanders explains the moves he wants to see. - ANDY PAULISSEN
Christopher Page-Sanders explains the moves he wants to see.

Since that reading, The Gringo has seen its fair share of changes. Healy has made the show a collaborative effort, looking to his cast and team members such as Page-Sanders for their thoughts and ideas on the work. Page-Sanders stresses the need for honesty and authenticity in the process, rather than simply trying to create a good book.

"Because we are dealing with heavy social issues — police brutality, violence, the struggle of people of color in this country right now — we have to be completely honest. We have to be completely open," he says. "The question is, what message are we trying to say? What message are we trying to send out to the world, and how do we do that? Especially emotional moments, because there are many emotional moments in The Gringo. How do we create an emotional moment with a message and not whitewash the message?"

Now as the show sees its final edits and rehearsals, the next question is whether The Gringo can draw the kind of crowd it saw at that staged reading to its performance at St. Lou Fringe — and see life beyond the festival.

"Where I want it to go, of course Broadway," Healy says with a small laugh. "I want it to be a licensable product that's accessible for casts of any color, creed or financial ability to put on, as simple or as complicated as you want it to be."

And if that's all The Gringo ever does, Healy says, it will be victory in his book. But of course, he'd like it to have a life of its own before becoming a licensable product, and Broadway is always the dream.

He's not the only one with such a vision. Both Page-Sanders and Like express similar hopes about The Gringo, and many others have bought into its message along the way. After all, it's not every day you find a story that resonates with so many people — and amplifies the voices of people who too often go unheard.

"I believe so much in this project that it legit is like, 'Oh, this is a Tony winner,'" Like says. "And I want to be on the fricking train when it's a Tony winner."

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