Reaching for the 'Heights'

By Paul Wozniak

Despite some missteps, Peppermint Creek musical still has energy

If the last Hispanic characters you remember from a Broadway musical are Maria and Bernardo from “West Side Story,” “In the Heights” hopes to update your memory. “In the Heights” is a feast of styles and sounds from Latin America and beyond, pouring salsa and hip-hop hooks over traditional storytelling like spicy guacamole over a bowl of chips. But writer Lin-Manual Miranda’s music and lyrics, inspired by his native Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, is not an easy recipe to follow. The resulting Peppermint Creek Theater Co. production is a brave attempt at greatness that occasionally falls short.

“In the Heights” could be the most challenging musical recently staged. Director Chad DeKatch had to find a leading male who could rap flawlessly with charismatic ease along with an enormous cast capable of belting blended harmonies in Spanish-styled syncopation, with moves to match. Juan Salazar, who plays Usnavi De La Vega, the stoic and smooth bodega owner with mile-a-minute rhymes, makes the show with his dexterously mind-blowing rapping and relaxed delivery. The rest of the cast (with notable exceptions) can sing or dance, but often struggle to do both simultaneously.

This is an ensemble-driven set of vignettes about working to get ahead and out of the old neighborhood. First generation immigrants saddle their young with higher dreams while others find comfort in familiarity. The bodega is Usnavi’s family business, and he treats all his customers and employees as family too. His speaks to his younger cousin Sonny (Brennan Hattaway) like a little brother, and in return Sonny provides amusing sass. Hattaway energetically embraces his punchy dialogue with real heart and expert comic timing.

Other stellar supporting cast members include AnnaMaria Horn as the sultry gossipmonger/salon manager Daniela and her assistant Carla, played by Hattie Rutledge. Horn dominates her songs, most notably “No Me Diga” in the first act and “Carnaval del Barrio” in the second. And although Diego Ramirez-Love’s character is literally a walk-on role named “Piragua Guy,” he pushes his soda-filled shopping cart with skillful steps and a voice that sells love, not soft drinks.

Off-stage and out of sight, music director Seth Burk led a fantastic band that was so tight, they often sounded pre-recorded. And Karyn Perry’s choreography sets a high bar for community theater — virtually every number is an intense workout that the cast aspired to make appear effortless. It was a tall order, which faltered at times, but ultimately nailed the landing.

“In the Heights”
Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.
Through Feb. 2
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Miller Performing Arts Center, 6025 Curry Lane, Lansing
$17 adults/$12 students and seniors
(517) 372-0945