Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Porchlight's Well-Scaled 'In the Heights' Achieves Impressive Elevation -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

In the Heights
Porchlight Music Theatre
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru October 23

On Friday night I saw Porchlight's local production of In the Heights, the 2008 Tony-winning musical created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who would go on to likewise conceive, compose and star in an even more successful show: Hamilton.

Though I had seen and loved In the Heights on Broadway with Miranda shortly after it garnered the Best New Musical Tony Award--and catching the first National Tour in Chicago in 2009 reiterated how good and groundbreaking the musical was even sans Miranda and the original cast--time had sufficiently eroded my memory for Porchlight's impressively-downsized take to be newly, and fully, enchanting.

Upon leaving the theater in the Stage 773 complex on Belmont Avenue, I was exuberant enough to feel a full @@@@@ rating was merited.

But between seeing the show and writing this review, three endeavors threatened to adjust just how highly I viewed this In the Heights:

1) I began a deep dive into exploring Hamilton, listening intently to the cast album while reading the lyrics, watching whatever clips I could find--from June's Tony Awards, where the show won 11 categories, as well as performances of select songs at the White House--and getting a better sense of just how brilliant that biographical musical is, which I haven't seen but am ticketed to attend on October 4 in Chicago (thanks to a longstanding Broadway in Chicago subscription).

2) I watched a Tony Awards performance and other clips of the original Broadway production of In the Heights featuring Miranda & co., the full-fledged set design, initial costumes and more

3) I attended, on Sunday afternoon, Goodman Theatre's excellent new, Mary Zimmerman-directed production of Wonderful Town, a classic musical dating to 1953 that, like In the Heights, celebrates New York City and its residents--including young, vibrant, talented-yet-uncertain ones--while featuring a brilliant, dynamic and fresh-for-the-time score by the legendary Leonard Bernstein.

Yet while I can't say the performances and production values of Porchlight's In the Heights uniformly matched what Broadway audiences saw, nor that Miranda's first Tony-winning musical is likely as mind-blowing as his second one, the comparisons and points of reference only "served to "heighten" my regard for the show--and this rendition.

With a top ticket price of $48 within Stage 773's 148-seat Thrust venue, patrons should well understand the inherent limitations tackled by director Brenda Didier, her crew and the mostly non-Equity cast.

But not only will the imaginative staging at Porchlight--with a clever bi-level set design by Greg Pinsoneault that well-conveys Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, including storefront signage closely hewing to that of the Broadway version--provide a fine introduction (or re-introduction) to In the Heights, this fine complement to the upcoming Chicago run of Hamilton makes for an economical entreé to the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Hamilton has quite rightly received tons of praise for its highly diverse (i.e. predominantly African-Amercian and Latinx cast) and for bringing rap/hip-hop and Latin rhythms into the Broadway vernacular.

But In the Heights actually did all of this first, and its celebration of Washington Heights denizens largely from Caribbean islands remains refreshing to behold in a city as diverse as Chicago.

There was some controversy over Didier's casting of Jack DeCesare in the Miranda role of Usnavi, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

But DeCesare, who is of Italian descent, looked and played the part quite well, even if his rapping skills and overall being as the show's Emcee of sorts didn't quite equal the original.

And while his specific ethnic background, like that of the rest of the mostly Hispanic cast, isn't of my acute concern, I appreciated the group of gifted performers who in sum looked different than the ensembles of most musicals I see, while exclusively showcasing actors I don't recall seeing on local stages across hundreds of shows. (Usually any large cast includes at least a couple performers I've seen previously.)

I found the entire cast to be excellent, with three of the key actresses--Michelle Lauto, Lucia Godinez and Isabrl Quintero--particularly outstanding.

Lauto sizzles as Vanessa, who works in the local hair salon, dreams of moving down to the Village and is romantically pursued by Usnavi.

Her early delivery of "It Won't Be Long Now" not only demonstrates strong vocal talents, but is just one of many reminders that Miranda's compositional skills (in terms of both music & lyrics) go far beyond hip hop.

I've been saying this since I first saw & heard In the Heights, but anyone who is dismissive of this show (or Hamilton for that matter) because they're "not into rap" is short-changing Miranda's mastery and range.

Certainly, Miranda has a great affinity, familiarity and talent for rap/hip-hop, but it should also be apparent to anyone who sees In the Heights or Hamilton that he's indebted to both Eminem and Sondheim, and Rodgers & Hammerstein as much as Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.

Seemingly, Lin-Manuel's own preferred singing style is rapping, and whether as Usnavi or Alexander Hamilton, this is the mode of vocalizing his particular characters employ (even when not actually played by him).

But some of In the Heights' best songs are in a rather traditional Broadway or pop vein, such as "When You're Home," well-sung here by Godinez and Stephen Allen as Nina and Benny, a fledgling couple after the former returns from Stanford to the Heights, where the latter works for her parents' livery service.

Miranda gives several characters considerable depth, including Usnavi's cousin Sonny (Frankie Leo Bennett), the neighborhood's grandmother-figure Abuela Claudia (Isabel Quintero), Nina's parents Kevin and Camilia Rosario (Jordan DeBose and Keely Vasquez) and even a Piragua (flavored ice) vendor (Stan Decwikiel, Jr.).

As such, In the Heights--the origins of which date back to Miranda's sophomore year at Wesleyan University in 1999 but subsequently had its book re-developed by playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes--  reflects a rather strong sense of community through compelling individual stories, even as several residents are on the verge of relocation, in part due to gentrification.

It was fun for me to see it again, just a couple weeks before I get to see Hamilton, and from all I've discerned so far, I should love that show.

But Porchlight's stellar production reiterated that In the Heights is an exceptional musical in its own right, one that changed the look and sound of traditional Broadway while also reflecting the best of it.

With all the hoopla surrounding Hamilton and its unprecedented success, it may be that In the Heights forever more lives in its shadow, referenced primarily as Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical.

Yet while what Hamilton has done is astonishing, so too is having a musical first concocted before he was 20 go to Broadway and win the Best Musical Tony by the time Miranda hit 30.

And while those who can't yet score Hamilton tickets would do well to get to Stage 773 to see what LMM created first, In the Heights is far better--and better-staged here--than simply to be seen as a curiosity.

Despite its own considerable success, it never entered the zeitgeist like Hamilton has, but In the Heights was and remains a rather lofty artistic accomplishment, with many considerable merits to be appreciated on their own (though also as more of a companion piece than it may overtly seem).

And even in a rather intimate space away from the Loop, Porchlight does it right and takes it to the heights.

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