Before “Hamilton,” there was “In the Heights.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical, set in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, established its creator as a major talent on the Great White Way.
It wowed audiences. It won accolades. And it set the stage for Miranda to craft a musical mega-hit that’s become one of Broadway’s biggest blockbusters.
“What Lin-Manuel Miranda did is create a piece of musical theater that’s accessible and also exciting, to all ages,” said Michael Jenkinson, who directs PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre’s production of “In the Heights.” “He’s really stepping up and making musical theater more prevalent and relevant in the world.”
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Miranda wrote the music and lyrics for “In the Heights,” which features a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and composer Quiara Alegría Huldes. The bilingual musical premiered on Broadway in 2008, garnering a Grammy Award and five Tony Awards, including best musical.
Now PCPA is tackling “In the Heights” with a full-fledged production that features music direction by Matthew Meckes, sets by Jason Bolen and costumes by Eddy Barrows. Jennifer “Z” Zornow serves as lighting designer, Elisabeth Weidner is sound designer and Ellen Beltramo is stage manager.
“What I love about PCPA is we are not a company that replicates. We are a company that creates,” Jenkinson said. “We’re really honoring what (Miranda) has done while doing our own take on it.”
Like 11-time Tony winner “Hamilton,” which delves into the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, “In the Heights” tells a uniquely American story about hope, ambition and reinvention set in a community on the verge of change.
Unfolding over the course of three days, the story is filtered through the viewpoint of Usnavi (George Walker), the orphaned owner of a bodega in Washington Heights. (His immigrant parents named him after one of the first sights they spotted after entering the United States — a ship bearing the sign “U.S. Navy.”)
He runs his store with the help of his wisecracking cousin, Sonny (Matt Cardenas).
Raised from early childhood by neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia (Debra Cardona), Usnavi dreams of returning one day to the Dominican Republic and reconnecting with his roots.
His love interest, Vanessa (Anna Bowen), wants to leave the barrio too. She’s got her eye on a Greenwich Village apartment.
Meanwhile, Nina (Gabriella Pérez) has already tested those waters. Unable to cope with the stress of college, she’s secretly dropped out of Stanford University, a fact she’s terrified of sharing with her parents, overprotective Kevin (Benjamin Perez) and strong-willed Camilla (Christina Aranda).
That’s not the only source of tension between them. Nina develops feelings for Benny (Nathan Andrew Riley), who works for her family’s taxi cab company, despite the fact that he doesn’t speak Spanish or share her Latino heritage.
Filling out the main cast are Vanessa’s ditzy friend and coworker, Carla (Brittany Mack), and dramatic Daniela (Giana Bommarito), who owns the beauty salon where the girls work. Other neighborhood characters include street artist Graffiti Pete (Christopher Marcos) and the Piragüero (Leo Cortez), who dishes out delicious frozen treats from his push cart.
(Lin-Manuel Miranda) wrote this show as a love letter to his culture and his community and his family.
“In the Heights” choreographer Matt Williams
Their lives are set to a dynamic soundtrack — described by Jenkinson as a “bumpin’ score” — that ranges from rapid-fire rap and hip hop to the fluid Caribbean rhythms of salsa, merengue and rumba.
“The music automatically steers you to a place of cultural authenticity,” said choreographer Matt Williams, reflecting the musical’s vibrant urban setting and ethnically diverse cast.
Williams lives in Washington Heights, just around the corner from Miranda himself.
“He wrote this show as a love letter to his culture and his community and his family,” said the choreographer, who himself harbors fond feelings for the neighborhood. “It’s a huge part of my life. It’s a huge part of my heart.”
Even folks without a direct link to New York City or its boroughs can find something to relate to in “In the Heights,” Jenkinson said.
Walker, for instance, sees parallels between the musical and his own immigrant story.
His mother fled an abusive marriage in the Philippines to become a go-go dancer in Okinawa, Japan, where she met Walker’s father, a U.S. Marine. Walker moved to the United States with his family at the tender age of 10 months.
Like Nina, “I can relate to being the first person in my family to go to college,” Walker said, adding that the musical’s messages about the importance of community and clan speak to him.
Jenkinson said he admires the ambition shared by many of the characters in “In the Heights.”
“I identify with that need to take the next step, to continue to strive to be better,” he said.
PCPA’s production of “In the Heights” reflects a similarly ambitious effort to appeal to both diehard musical theater fans and those who are less familiar with the art form.
“In the structure of this play, you could see ‘Oklahoma.’ You could see ‘West Side Story.’ You could see … ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ ” Walker said. “People who are used to seeing classical American theater should actually feel very welcome and understand this form.”
At the same time, Jenkinson said, “the musical’s contemporary setting and cutting-edge score make readily recognizable to modern audiences.
“Lin-Manuel Miranda has written (‘In the Heights’) from his heart, and that is what is so special about this piece,” he said. “You cannot help but connect to it.”
‘In the Heights’
7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday; through Aug. 20
Marian Theatre, 800 S. College Drive, Santa Maria
$29.50 to $39.50, discounts for seniors, students and children
8 p.m. Aug. 26 through Sept. 11
Solvang Festival Theater, 420 Second St., Solvang
$38.50 to $49.50