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Porchlight’s ‘In the Heights’ ablaze with emotional fireworks

Michelle Lauto (front) plays Vanessa and Jack DeCesare plays Usnavi in the Porchlight Music Theatre production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical, "In the Heights." (Photo: Gretchen Kelley)

Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of “In the Heights” is such an overwhelming experience on every level — in the brilliance and endearing warmth of its cast, the passion behind its storytelling, the piercing truth and mastery of its direction, the thrill of its explosive dancing, the magic of its mix of voices, the detail of its design and the instant connection it forges with its audience — that it is difficult to know where to begin when heaping praise on it all.

Adding to its innate glory is the fact that this 2008 Tony Award-winning musical — the first Broadway production by Lin-Manuel Miranda, better known these days as that “Hamilton” man — turns out to offer an uncanny bit of counterpoint to that more recent work. “In the Heights,” with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, is set over the course of several days around July 4, and is a tale of contemporary Latino immigrant life in Washington Heights, the largely Dominican-American (and increasingly gentrified) neighborhood in northern Manhattan adjacent to the George Washington Bridge. The area also happens to have been a crucial defensive site for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, so it is an easy flash backward (or forward) to an early scene in “Hamilton,” when George Washington and his troops were in trouble.

To be sure, the two shows are very different, but it’s worth noting that the heroes of both are orphans and immigrants, gifted with great verbal facility and a fierce determination to succeed. And of course the scores for both are brilliant interweavings of hip-hop and classic Broadway, fueled by a social and political awareness paired with an unabashedly romantic soul and a search for identity.

Highly recommended
When: Through Dec. 31
Where: Porchlight Music Theatre
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Tickets: $43 – $51
Info: (773) 327-5252;
Run time: 2 hours and
30 minutes with one intermission

It’s summer in the city, and Usnavi De La Vega (slender, lovable Jack DeCesare, fresh out of DePaul’s Theatre School, who winningly captures his character’s growing confidence) is selling cafe-con-leches and lottery tickets to his regular customers, and trying to keep the local graffiti artist (snaky break-dancer Kristopher Knighton) from spray-painting the corrugated metal gate that protects the little bodega left to him by his parents.

Sweet and engaging, Usnavi (see the show to discover the source of his name) keeps a close eye on the loving Abuela Claudia (an enchanting turn by Isabel Quintero), who has been a grandmother figure to him. He also lusts after Vanessa (the ideally leggy, power-voiced Michelle Lauto), the girl in miniskirts whose greatest dream is to rent an apartment “downtown” in the Village, where she thinks her real life will begin. But Usnavi is terribly shy in Vanessa’s presence, and not even the punchy tutoring from his very young cousin/helper, Sonny (winning work by impish Frankie Leo Bennett), seems to help.

Isabel Quintero as Abuela Claudia, holding her Lottery ticket in the Porchlight Music THeatre production of "In te Heights." (Photo: Gretchen Kelley)

Isabel Quintero as Abuela Claudia, holding her lottery ticket, in the Porchlight Music Theatre production of “In the Heights.” (Photo: Gretchen Kelley)

Meanwhile, the big event in the neighborhood is the return of Nina Rosario (the wonderfully natural, golden-voiced Lucia Godinez, daughter of Chicago theater veterans Henry Godinez and Nancy Voights), the brainy achiever who went off to Stanford University on a scholarship supplemented by her financially pinched parents, Kevin and Camila, who own a cab service. (They are superbly played by Jordan DeBose and Keely Vasquez.) Pressured by her part-time jobs and a feeling of being a fish out of water at Stanford, Nina has taken “a leave of absence” from school — news that leaves her father both angry and distraught. Kevin also is upset that Nina is romantically involved with Benny (deft work by Stephen Allen), the young African-American striver who works as his dispatcher, and his latent racism cannot be disguised.

Meanwhile, life goes on in the neighborhood, as the ever-gossipy but big-hearted beauticians, played with great vocal and comic chops by Missy Aguilar and Leah Davis, prepare to move their shop to the Bronx, where rents are cheaper. El Piraguero (Stan DeCwikiel Jr., whose near operatic voice and joyful spirit elicit cheers) continues to sell ices from his pushcart while competing with Mr. Softee. And the locals (sensational singer-dancers all, including Nicole Lambert, Cisco Lopez, Yando Lopez, Elena Romanowski, Travis Austin Wright and Demi Zaino) move through the streets and a dance club like wildfire).

Lucia Godinez (center) plays Nina, surrounded by (from left) Michelle Lauto, Missy Aguilar and Leah Davis in the Porchlight Music Theatre production of "In the Heights." (Photo: Gretchen Kelley)

Lucia Godinez (center) plays Nina, surrounded by (from left) Michelle Lauto, Missy Aguilar and Leah Davis in the Porchlight Music Theatre production of “In the Heights.” (Photo: Gretchen Kelley)

Didier, the ever-masterful, from-the-heart director (who has choreographed the show with Christopher Carter), turns every song into a full-blown dramatic scene, and her actors follow suit, with Diana Lawrence’s musical direction synched with Miranda’s magical score — from the fervent “Breathe,” to the motto-setting “Paciencia and Fe” (“Patience and Faith”), to the “Carnaval del Barrio” (which gives Leonard Bernstein’s “Dance at the Gym” a run for its money).

Greg Pinsoneault’s set (lit by Denise Karczewski) is a perfect mix of mean streets and homespun detail, as are Kate Setzer Kamphausen’s character-defining costumes.

One final note: The ices vendor character arrives just as the real-life story of an 89-year-old paleta vendor pushing his cart through Chicago’s Little Village streets generated a social media frenzy that inspired the raising of a retirement fund of thousands of dollars. In life as in art. Or is it the reverse?