Does the name Lin-Manuel Miranda sound vaguely familiar to you? The theatre genius and mastermind behind the hit-musical “Hamilton” first made a name for himself as the lyricist and composer of “In the Heights.” The show opened on Broadway in 2008, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical and another for Best Original Score. Porchlight Theatre is in the middle of an already extended run of the production, which is playing now at Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont Ave.).
Porchlight Theatre recently found itself in the midst of a scandal when it cast a white actor of Italian descent as the lead role of Usnavi, a character from the Dominican Republic, in their production of “In the Heights.”
The show takes place in the Latinx (a gender neutral alternative to Latino or Latina) community of Washington Heights in New York City, so a number of groups opposed the casting choice. The backlash, which came from organizations including Latino Theatre Commons and Teatro Vista, resulted in a town hall meeting titled “The Color Game: Whitewashing Latinx Stories,” to discuss the question of whitewashing in productions throughout the city. The groups wanted an authentic representation of the struggles the community has gone through. The night of the meeting, a cast member from the production, Stan DeCwikiel, stated that the company stood in solidarity with the casting decision and “discrimination as well as economic and social disparity is not exclusively the struggle of Latino Americans.”
With all of this controversy, I was curious to see how DeCesare would respond in the role. Overall, his portrayal of Usnavi was rather disappointing. In the show, the lead character is the narrator for the audience and the leader of the neighborhood, commanding attention with a series of impassioned and heartfelt raps and rhymes. Rather than capturing and retaining my attention, DeCesare seemed to blend into the ensemble, with my gaze only going his way during his solos or when he delivered a line.
The standout performance of the night came from Michelle Lauto, who plays Vanessa, a confident and brassy hairdresser who dreams of leaving behind her life in the barrio (neighborhood) for something greater. Dressed in high heels, a denim skirt, a tank and oversized hoop earrings, Lauto receives the attention of not only the men in the neighborhood, but also the entire audience. Her outstanding ability to portray the many personalities and desires of Vanessa were only made stronger by her captivating vocals.
Greg Pinsoneault’s set was very creative and detailed, but it was crowded in the intimate theatre. Although the set included several impressive storefronts and rooms, it left little playing room for the actors, making things feel a bit congested at points.
The story of “In the Heights” is a heartfelt one. It portrays a tight-knit community on the brink of change and the struggle of leaving behind everything you know for something new. While Miranda’s music and lyrics create the potential for a thrilling show, Porchlight’s production struggles to realize that potential.
“In the Heights” is playing now through Oct. 23 at Stage 773. Tickets cost $38-$51 and can be purchased at PorchlightMusicTheatre.org or by calling (773) 327-5252.