Let’s address the elephant in the room first: Jack DeCesare, who plays the role originated by In the Heights composer Lin-Manuel Miranda in Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of the 2008 musical, appears to be a very talented young actor who is fine, if not great, as Usnavi. Porchlight’s casting of DeCesare, who is reportedly of Italian descent, in the Latino leading role of a show about a largely Latino community has engendered vocal pushback from some members of the Chicago theater community since casting was announced in July. Porchlight claimed it an innocent mistake but stuck by their man. (The line in Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’s book when an African-American character is deemed “an honorary Latino” seemed to draw extra recognition from the opening night audience.)
Leaving the baggage aside as much as possible—to paraphrase a piece of advice I picked up early in my career, “review the play in front of you, not the one you wish you were seeing”—DeCesare, a recent graduate of the Theatre School at DePaul University, displayed the technical chops but also a problematic tentativeness on opening night. He could make a decent Usnavi one day, but right now he seems to be tempering himself; it’s not hard to wonder if the external pressures made him instinctually shrink, but Usnavi, the show’s narrator and direct conduit to the audience, has to be a charismatic force; whatever the reason, DeCesare is too timid a presence here.
But there’s so much to admire around him in Brenda Didier’s compact but compelling production—particularly the cast’s young women. Lucia Godinez, still an undergrad at Northwestern, is magnetic as Nina Rosario, the good girl who bears the burden of being Washington Heights’s neighborhood success story. Michelle Lauto already has a non-Equity Jeff Award nomination under her belt but feels like a real discovery as Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest yearning to break free from her home.
Missy Aguilar, whose résumé is a few lines longer than Godinez and Lauto’s, appears to have found her ideal role in smart-mouthed salon proprietor Daniela; among the young men, Stephen Allen as Benny and Frankie Leo Bennett as Sonny found slots on my “names to watch” list. All told, a tamer Usnavi might have given me fresh eyes to see the too-often-forgotten work of Miranda’s collaborator here, Hudes. Heights, I’m reminded, is every bit as much a portrait of a community-as-family as Hudes’s Elliot Trilogy. And Porchlight’s intimate production, featuring killer music direction by Diana Lawrence, gives every member of its community time to shine.
Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773. Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Directed by Brenda Didier. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.