Chicago Theatre Review
A Universal Story of Love, Family and Support
In the Heights – Porchlight Theatre
It’s hard to imagine a more loving, honest and emotionally moving production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s successful, multi Tony Award-winning 2008 Broadway hit than Porchlight’s current offering. Under the gentle guidance of director and co-choreographers Brenda Didier and Christopher Carter, with peerless musical direction by Diana Lawrence, this is the musical that first made Miranda a household name. With a warm, sincerely heartfelt book by Quiara Alegria Hudes and an infectious score and lyrics by Mr. Miranda, audiences are treated to a universal story of love, family and support.
Nestled within the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, in the predominately Dominican-American neighborhood that gives this musical its title, we’re treated to the hopes and dreams of this barrio’s multi-generational residents, as energetically expressed through Latin and rap music and hip hop street dancing. Miranda’s pulsating, fireball of a musical bursts with color and life, leaving its audience with a message of pure joy and encouragement.
The show’s all-embracing popularity is unlimited. Everyone wants his chance at a better life and so we cheer for this cast of likable characters who are striving against all odds to achieve the American Dream. Although hailing from many different households, this colorful ensemble of characters feels like one big, caring family. Their positive, electric exuberance is contagious and audiences leave the theatre inspired and uplifted.
Brenda Didier returns to Porchlight Music Theatre to work her Jeff Award-winning directorial and choreographic magic on this talented cast, ably assisted by Chris Carter’s sassy and spirited dance moves. Together they keep the entire cast in motion. Greg Pinsoneault’s cleverly creative scenic design utilizes every inch of available space. He plunks the multilevel barrio of shops and tenement buildings smack dab in the middle of the Stage 773 stage, branching out onto the balconies and fire escapes above. Ms. Lawrence’s six-member orchestra, tucked somewhere backstage, sounds full and gorgeous; and kudos to Robert Hornbostel’s expert sound design, which allows audiences to hear and understand every note and lyric. Kate Setzer Kamphausen’s pitch-perfect costumes add a new dimension to every character and Denise Karczewski illuminates this show with the same sparkle she infused into Porchlight’s production of “Dreamgirls.”
Ms. Didier’s ensemble cast is perfection. They’re all excellent, every single one. As Usnavi, handsome newcomer Jack DeCesare is a treasure. He skillfully leads the audience on a tour of his neighborhood, lovingly introducing each of his friends and neighbors, while providing their interesting backstories. DeCesare is an appealing young actor who should have a bright, long career in this business. He gently holds the audience in the palm of his hand enticing us to cheer wholeheartedly for his success, every step of the way.
Making her Porchlight debut is Isabel Quintero, perfectly cast as Abuela Claudia, the lovable neighborhood elder and surrogate grandmother, who raised Usnavi and his young cousin Sonny. Her two big numbers, “Paciencia Y Fe” and “Hundreds of Stories” are both sung beautifully and with heartfelt sensitivity. Audiences will easily fall in love with this beautiful lady, whose heart is as big as her warm, cheerful smile.
A junior at Northwestern, Lucia Godinez is simply gorgeous as Nina, the smart, likable young lady who became the first to leave the barrio to attend college. This talented young actress sings the roof off the theatre, and her sweet smile and genuine likability make her the perfect match for Stephen Allen, as Benny, the African-American dispatcher who works for Nina’s parents. Mr. Allen’s good looks and trained voice are matched by his ease with some difficult choreography and a likable, humble demeanor. Their duets “Sunrise,” “When the Sun Goes Down” and “When You’re Home” simply soar. Jordan DeBose and feisty Keely Vasquez play Kevin and Camila Rosario, Nina’s hardworking, self-sacrificing parents. Their shared chemistry and determination is reflected in their songs, “Inutil” and “Enough.”
Other standout performances come courtesy of young Frankie Leo Bennett, as the sweet, endearingly humorous, Sonny; Kristopher Knighton as the talented and astonishing breakdancer, Graffiti Pete; Michelle Lauto as Usnavi’s vivacious love interest with the big voice, the sexy young Vanessa; Stan DeCwikiel, Jr. as the golden throated street vendor, El Piraguero; and beautiful, sassy, spirited Missy Aguilar and the lovably humorous Leah Davis, as Unisex Salon operators, Daniela and Carla. In addition to these leading players, a talented, hardworking ensemble of singers/dancers, including Demi Zaino, Elena Romanowski, Nicole Lambert, Yando Lopez, Travis Austin Wright and Cisco Lopez work tirelessly to provide the additional sparkle that carries the excellence of this production all the way up to the heights.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 9-November 19 by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-327-5252 or by going to www.PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions may be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.