Chicago Theater Review: IN THE HEIGHTS (Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 19, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


In The Heights, a two-time Tony-winning 2008 musical, celebrates a place that doesn’t quite reward the torrid devotion of its likable characters. They both delight in and want to depart from Washington Heights in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a close-knit neighborhood populated by Hispanics from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic (though a token Mexican flag hangs from a fire escape). If you just go by the plot, this Spanish Harlem seems a rather schizophrenic place, where dreary daily details never get in the way of collective dreams and cumulative aspirations.

Frankie Leo Bennett as "Sonny" performs "96,000" with the cast of In The Heights

In this special ghetto no one ever mentions drugs, guns, gangs or gays. (Graffiti is as bad as it gets here and it’s altogether artistic.) But it’s also a barrio where a power failure can last for days (endangering the 4th of July fun, except that they have their own pyrotechnics). This outside failure results in a lot of inside mayhem–looting by greedy neighbors whose pillaging and identity are never once mentioned in the story. So what do these “powerless” people do in response to Con Edison’s failure? They hold a “Carnival del Barrio” in the steaming heat and dance up a summer storm. (You can smell a cliché by the tempting whiff of wishful thinking.)

(full cast) The cast of In The Heights

At the end of the two and half hours two of the three businesses that open the show—a cab company, grocery store and beauty salon–are closed or have moved. But you’d never know it from the organized outbreaks that regularly punctuate this dance-crazed confection. One memorial mural on a security door—an empty Hollywood gesture that clearly worked on Broadway–is enough to transform the law of diminishing returns into “Champagne.” Alas, the only ticket out of this Raza, it seems, is literal–a lottery winner.

Jack DeCesare as "Usnavi" performs "Finale”Inevitably this fervent collaboration by composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of the equally omitting Hamilton) and book writer Quiara Allegria Hudes, now in a vigorous and heartfelt revival by Porchlight Music Theatre, is both a communal celebration and a study in denial. Seldom has a sad storyline seemed so at variance with its euphoric score.

Its passion, however, is incontestable in three stores and “hundreds of stories” over two days, praising folks who fight for their future even as they deny the present. The rapping town troubadour is Usnavi de La Vega (handsome Jack DeCesare) whose bodega is the heart of this vibrant street scene (would that this were Elmer Rice’s masterpiece!). He finds comfort from his unfailingly wise abuela Claudia (saintly Isabel Quintero) whose lottery winnings temporarily stave off disaster.

Missy Aguilar as "Daniela" and the cast of In The Heights perform "Carnaval Del Barrio"

Other semi-stereotypical survivors include Usnavi’s sweetheart, the free-spirited Vanessa (sprightly Michelle Lauto); comical kid Sonny (Frankie Leo Bennett), a brash would-be Romeo; Nina Rosario (Lucia Godinez), her Cuban-American’s family great hope as she faces an uncertain college career at Stanford; and Benny (Stephen Allen), her African-American boyfriend who’s worked for her family’s car service for years but still may not be good enough to marry her.

Jack DeCesare as "Usnavi" dances with Ensemble member Elena RomanowskiThis street (imaginatively recreated by Greg Pinsoneault) is crowded, not just with frenetic hoofing to mambo, salsa, hip-hop or meringue beats, but to enough subplots to fuel a Telenovela.

But the songs, beautifully shaped by music director Diana Lawrence, make the audience care and smile. Even better, they give a valedictory plot life and love. Credit that as much to the warm rapport established by a seasoned cast and inspired by director/co-choreographer Brenda Didier and Chris Carter. The breakout dances, like the title rouser, the riotous “Alabanza,” and the contagious “Club,” bring unforced energy to forced festivities.

Michelle Lauto, Missy Aguilar, Lucia Godinez and Leah Davis as "Vanessa," "Daniela," "Nina Rosario," and "Carla”

What charms and almost conquers here is our Abuela’s “patience and faith,” the cross-generational conviction of multicultural Hispanics delirious at their own persistence. Despite all the holes that shred this story, their jubilation distracts us long enough to convert us—for the duration.

Isabel Quintero as "Abuela Claudia"

Jordan DeBose and Lucia Godinez as "Kevin Rosario" and "Nina Rosario”photos by Gretchen Kelley

In the Heights
Porchlight Music Theatre
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8;
Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on October 16, 2016
EXTENDED to December 31, 2016
for tickets, call 773.327.5252
or visit Porchlight

for more shows,
visit Theatre in Chicago

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