Rachel Weinberg has been a freelance theater critic around Chicago for more than three years. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to that, Rachel worked for two years in digital marketing at Goodman Theatre and spent a season as a Marketing Apprentice for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. You can read all of Rachel's reviews at RachelWeinbergReviews.com and find her on Twitter @RachelRWeinberg.
Review: IN THE HEIGHTS at Porchlight Music Theatre
By Rachel Weinberg
Porchlight Music Theatre’s timely production of the 2008 Tony Award-winning musical IN THE HEIGHTS offers audiences the chance to experience this earlier work by HAMILTON creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (with book by Quiara Alegría Hudes) in a fittingly intimate setting as designed with meticulous detail by Greg Pinsoneault. The Latino/a community of New York City’s Washington Heights comes to life under the direction of Brenda Didier (with choreography by Didier and Chris Carter).The ensemble of this HEIGHTS teems with energy and abundant vocal talent (particularly from many of the expert female actors), making this an inviting and enjoyable evening of theater.
I would be remiss not to mention that the casting of Caucasian actor Jack DeCesare in the leading role of Usnavi has generated considerable debate among the Chicago theater community about diversity and representation in casting. Rightfully, this is an important issue to consider in Chicago and beyond, especially given the enormity of HAMILTON and the commitment Miranda made to creating roles for actors of multiple ethnicities to play in that show.
Based on the merits of what I saw on stage Saturday night, however, DeCesare’s performance is solid—though he lacks the commanding presence that Usnavi should have. DeCesare’s Usnavi is fresh-faced, vibrant, and full of energy—he can handle the vocal demands of the role and makes nice work of Miranda’s raps. And though Usnavi is certainly deeply woven into the fabric of the Washington Heights community, he’s also meant to be a guiding hand for both the audience and those around him. When DeCesare is onstage, he fades more into the background—he’s a member, rather than a leader of this HEIGHTS. That said, he certainly proves to be an emerging talent. And DeCesare’s interactions with Frankie Leo Bennett, who plays Usnavi’s cousin and bodega worker Sonny, are playful and give a real sense of family.
The most memorable talents in this HEIGHTS, however, are the women. Lucia Godinez (a current student at Northwestern University) lends gravitas to the role of Nina, who returns home after a disappointing and challenging freshman year at Stanford University. In Godinez’s performance, we truly feel the weight upon Nina’s shoulders–not only does she feel like she’s letting herself down, but that she’s disappointed an entire community with hopes pinned on her. She bestows an incredible depth of feeling to the role, making Nina an emotional center of this production. Godinez’s vocals are spot on, too, and her duets with love interest Benny (Stephen Allen) sound great on both parts. Michelle Lauto makes equally fine work of Vanessa, who longs to escape Washington Heights to find new opportunity and break away from her alcoholic mother. Lauto has a powerful voice and particularly impresses on Vanessa’s heart-wrenching solo “It Won’t Be Long Now.” Missy Aguilar adds humor as neighborhood salon owner Daniela and has ample opportunity to show off her impressive belt. Isabel Quintero supplies heart as community anchor Abuela Claudia and delivers a stunning rendition of “Paciencia y Fé,” while Keely Vasquez also adds a touching maternal presence as Camila Rosario.
As a whole, IN THE HEIGHTS’ ensemble does not miss a beat. The cast makes joyful work of high-energy group numbers like “96,000” and “The Club,” while also leaning into the more emotional numbers, particularly “Alabanza.” The company has a true community feel in this production, which helps underscore the tension between Washington Heights as a nurturing and warm community while also being a place that some may need to leave in order to grow and develop (notably, we see this with Vanessa and Nina).
For those who cannot procure those elusive tickets to that phenomenon HAMILTON, Porchlight’s IN THE HEIGHTS offers a lovely opportunity to experience the genius and unique writing style of Lin-Manuel Miranda in a close-up, heartfelt setting.
Porchlight Music Theatre’s IN THE HEIGHTS is now playing through October 23rd. For info and tickets visit porchlightmusictheatre.org/