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Review: There is Joy in Porchlight's Controversial IN THE HEIGHTS

If you aspire to see "Hamilton" while it's in Chicago but have yet to score tickets, you can get a tease of what Lin-Manuel Miranda has to offer this town by checking out Porchlight Theatre's production of IN THE HEIGHTS, Miranda's first Broadway hit, which won the Tony for best musical in 2008.

The recent casting controversies surrounding IN THE HEIGHTS make it an even more intriguing prospect. Porchlight was lambasted for casting a non-Latino in the lead role (originated by Miranda on Broadway), as was Phoenix Theatre in Phoenix, Ariz., for the casting of its current production.

Critics argue that the "whitewashing" of ethnic characters needs to stop; that there are enough actors of color out there -- especially in a major metropolitan city with a thriving theater scene -- that casting directors should have no problem finding a credible Latino to play a Latino. Others argue that "it's called acting," and the best audition should get the part, race be damned. In a perfect world, the latter concept is reasonable, but the world is not perfect, and if that actor can't deliver the goods portraying an ethnicity not his own, then the production suffers, and so does the theater community.

Jack DeCesare, the young actor cast as Usnavi in Porchlight's IN THE HEIGHTS, is clearly talented and well-rehearsed, but he's not entirely successful here as a Dominican Republic-born New Yorker. It's as if the casting director asked specifically for "a young Lin-Manuel Miranda," because DeCesare often sounds like he's doing an imitation of Miranda's Usnavi rather than putting his own stamp on it. He gets an A for effort. There are a lot of words and rhymes and rhythms in this hip-hop-heavy show, and DeCesare hits them all -- just not with the authentic Latin flavor required.

But thanks to the cast as a whole and all the surrounding elements that indeed give this show its Latin vibe -- set design, lighting, music, costumes, props, choreography -- Porchlight delivers a joyous celebration of what it means to be "home."

IN THE HEIGHTS offers up a slice of life in Washington Heights, a largely Latino community in upper Manhattan, where gentrification is in full swing, changing the neighborhood as swiftly as the gossip flows in Daniela's Unisex Salon -- which, because of rising rents, is closing and moving to the Bronx. Usnavi owns and operates the bodega next door, selling coffee, soda, lottery tickets and general good cheer. But he, too, dreams of getting out and returning to his birthplace.

A clear standout in this ensemble is Lucia Godinez as Nina Rosario, whose parents own a taxi service on the block, and who did get a ticket out via a scholarship to Stanford. The pressures of being so far away from home and having to work while trying to keep up with studies has caused her to lose her scholarship, and she comes home with the shame of having let down not only her parents, but also an entire community that pinned its own hopes and dreams to her coattails.

L-R: Michelle Lauto as Vanessa,
Missy Aguilar as Daniela,
Lucia Godinez as Nina, Leah Davis as Carla

Usnavi's character is the narrator of the story, but in Porchlight's offering, it is Godinez's Nina that gives the show its center, and her scenes with Benny (a wonderfully fervent Stephen Allen) expose its heart. Their duets, "When You're Home" and "When the Sun Goes Down" are particularly moving. The two have chemistry to spare, but the same cannot be said about the other "power couple" in the story.

Michelle Lauto is splendid as the feisty and restless Vanessa, who is the object of Usnavi's desire -- but their connection lacks passion, and so it's difficult to buy into Usnavi's ultimate life choices.

Frankie Leo Bennett as Sonny and Stan DeCwikiel Jr. as El Piraguero bring noteworthy spunk and authenticity, respectively, onto the stage each time they're featured, but it is the women in particular who breathe the most life into this show. Isabel Quintero as Abuela Claudia brings passion and pathos to "Paciencia y Fe," while the ladies of the salon -- Daniela (a vivacious Missy Aguilar), Carla (the effervescent Leah Davis), Vanessa and Nina -- keep one another delightfully up to date in "No Me Diga."

The company brings it in every production number, from the opening "In the Heights" to the lottery dreamer's anthem "96,000" to the salsa-infused "The Club" to the joyous "Carnaval Del Barrio." Watching ensemble member/Usnavi understudy Yando Lopez maneuver onstage does give one a "what if..." pause, but all controversy aside, and for what it's worth, I do think Mr. Miranda would enjoy this show.

IN THE HEIGHTS continues through Oct. 23 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets are $43-$51. For information, call 773-777-5252;

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