SALT LAKE CITY — The musical embryo sounds of "Hamilton" rang out Friday night through the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre as the cast of Pioneer Theatre Company’s "In the Heights" danced and sang their way through a concert version of Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Tony Award-winning hit. It seems a little disrespectful to "In the Heights" to bring up its mega-hit offspring — it is, after all, a solid hit in its own right — but the comparison is inevitable.
Miranda’s first Broadway musical, set in his native Manhattan, follows a group of predominately Hispanic-American residents in the Washington Heights neighborhood, which includes a young bodega owner named — somewhat unfortunately — Usnavi De La Vega (named after a passing ship); Vanessa, the young woman he pines after; Nina Rosario, the neighborhood's golden girl who just returned from her first year at Stanford; and Benny, Nina's father's employee who just might be in love with her.
Once a year, PTC produces a concert version of a musical, but this year's "In the Heights," which the company performed in full in 2012, is more of a staged concert, with moving sets, plenty of dancing, action and a live band on stage. If anything, the actors' music folders felt unnecessary and cumbersome, occasionally acting as a prop but generally just getting in the way.
Diego Klock-Perez as Usnavi exuded swagger, sweetness and just a hint of goofiness in the role that Miranda played on Broadway. His raps were as strong as his singing, and Klock-Perez managed to hit his character's tricky intersection of insecurity and confidence, moving between a young man who believes in his abilities to a young man who can't muster up the courage to ask out the girl of his dreams. Speaking of that girl, Ariana Escalante's clear voice made her character Vanessa's songs some of the night's most memorable, as we felt her struggle to be free from her upbringing's poverty and home problems and head to a better life downtown.
One of the night's standout performances was Micki Martinez as Nina, in what is also the play's most nuanced role. Nina is the smart, driven daughter of Dominican immigrants and small-business owners, Kevin and Camila Rosario (played by Enrique Acevedo and Melissa Blatherwick). She is the one who "got out," thanks to a scholarship to Stanford University. But when Nina returns to Washington Heights after her first year, Martinez made the audience feel the weight of Nina's pressure to please not just her parents, but her whole neighborhood — a pressure that becomes more poignant when she reveals she has dropped out of school. Martinez's strong voice carried her through the powerful ballad, "Everything I Know," and was a welcome addition to any ensemble number.
Rounding out the four romantic leads was Carleton Bluford as Benny, the hardworking young man who believes — along with Nina's father — that he isn't good enough for Nina, but goes after her anyway. Matos' Benny had an undercurrent of strength as we watched him emerge from his youthful insecurities and transform into a young man who believes in his own power to succeed.
The rest of PTC's "In the Heights" cast gamely kept up with the four young leads, with a special notice for Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood grandmother and guardian angel.
Anyone who has heard the music to Miranda's "Hamilton" will instantly recognize his beats, raps and musical cues in "In the Heights," and seeing this production is a wonderful primer for next's month's "Hamilton" takeover.
But "Hamilton" or not, "In the Heights" is a joyful, thoughtful and highly tuneful production that shows no matter how much you may want something new, it's your family — neighbors and all — who love and know you best.
Content advisory: "In the Heights" has some cursing, but no strong language, and no violence or strong sexual content.