By Barry Reszel
“The main character in the 2008 Broadway musical In the Heights is not a person at all—it’s the neighborhood, mostly Dominican-American, that sits atop Manhattan in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge,” wrote the Chicago Tribune‘s esteemed theatre critic, Chris Jones, exactly three years ago about Paramount Theatre’s electric production of Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Hamilton predecessor.
“And,” he added, “while you wouldn’t necessarily imagine Paula Scrofano playing an old Latina, she pulls off the neighborhood icon Abuela Claudia quite beautifully.”
He was right.
But where was the discussion then? The town hall? The outrage?
Just three years ago.
Because this August, Victory Gardens and the Alliance of Latinx Theatre Artists Chicago hosted “The Color Game: Whitewashing Latinx Stories,” a town hall contributing to the ongoing national discussion fueled by Marriott Theatre’s production of Evita this year with a mostly non-Latinx cast and the casting of Italian-American Jack DeCesare as Usnavi De La Vega in Porchlight’s In the Heights. Author Miranda originated the role of Usnavi, the show’s hip-hopping narrator who raps, “I immigrated from the single greatest little place in the Caribbean / Dominican Republic.” (The Tribune’s full report of the town hall may be read here.)
Without question, the town hall, the continuing discussion and the increasing awareness are positive, proactive and progressive. They put creative teams and actors on notice that folks are calling out whitewashing and look to make the entire theatre community active in pursuit of opportunity for people of color on Chicagoland’s stages and for the right of people to tell their own stories.
But at times the discussion’s turned unconscionably ugly. DeCesare received a death threat from some nut. Social media exchanges sometimes became dismissively closed, even to longtime community members and allies. And friends have been villainized.
That’s why anyone caringly paying attention and seeking to understand cannot merely review Porchlight Music Theatre’s current, tender production of In the Heights as he or she would any other show. There is immense pressure on this mostly young cast helmed by Director/Choreographer Brenda Didier to be unfailingly authentic to the show’s eclectic neighborhood mix while delivering the central feelings of home, family and belonging. (A full plot summary and production history 2008 Tony Award-winning Best Musical, Score, Choreography, Orchestrations may be read here).
Know that they succeed.
And please consider these six points, too:
- Porchlight is pretty much the last musical theatre company in Chicagoland deserving to be villainized in this discussion. Compare its percentage casting people of color to that of any other company. Look at its history of shows. Do the research. Artistic Director Michael Weber is Dudley Do-Right in this realm, not Snidely Whiplash. And it’s illegal to ask specifically (thankfully) for racial or ethnic identification at a job interview.
- DeCesare offers an awkwardly shy and tender depiction of Usnavi who can rap with the best. Whether he should have auditioned for this role and kept it when the controversy broke is for him to consider. His surrounding cast of 17, reportedly all “authentic,” stood (and stand, dance and rap) behind him. He’s a young actor cast in a plum lead role (it’s his professional debut, for goodness sake). So while the discussion and awareness must continue, it’s time to let Jack succeed.
- As lead Nina Rosario, the brilliant Lucia Godinez absolutely shines. This Northwestern University junior double-major in theatre and Latino Studies offers, perhaps, the most important voice to the conversation while simultaneously providing the standout voice of this production. Dedicating her performance to her own Cuban grandmother, this next generation in a Chicagoland theatre family shines in “Breathe,” “When You’re Home,” “Sunrise,” “Everything I Know,” “When the Sun Goes Down” and every scene she touches. Godinez is a true star.
- Porchlight’s Washington Heights’ neighbors make the community come alive. Stephen Allen is a kind, vulnerable Benny who matches Godinez vocally, note for note. Michelle Lauto is a sexy, great singing Vanessa. Frankie Leo Bennett‘s Sonny is fun, funny and real. Leah Davis and Missy Aguilar in the salon; Stan DeCwikiel, Jr. as the loveable Piragua Man; and Jordan DeBose and Keely Vasquez as Nina’s parents all shine by belonging…and by singing extraordinarily well.
- The principals and a highly energetic, well-directed ensemble are enhanced by a wonderful two-tiered set on Stage 773’s thrust stage that literally puts the community into the audience’s lap. Kudos to Scenic Designer Greg Pinsoneault.
- And in her Porchlight debut as Abuela Claudia, Isabel Quintero, is perfectly cast. Her “Paciencia Y Fe” and “Hundreds of Stories” are lovingly heartfelt. But even more so, it is her character that delivers Porchlight’s ultimate contribution to the discussion.
In the same way centuries of parents have advised the next generation to “listen to your elders,” so does Porchlight’s In the Heights implore: “Paciencia y fe.” Patience and faith.
“That was my Abuela, she’s not really my abuela,
But she practically raised me, this corner is her escuela!”
Porchlight Music Theatre presents “In the Heights” through October 23 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.