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A dispute seems to have galvanized Porchlight's In the Heights

Ethnic wars—and a really good show

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Well, we had a busy summer, didn't we? No sooner had everybody caught their breath after the Profiles Theatre harassment scandal, with its satisfyingly dramatic climax (storefront windows plastered over with copies of the Reader cover story, Profiles abruptly shuttered), than we were confronted with another controversy: Porchlight Music Theatre announced that the lead role of Usnavi in its new staging of In the Heights would be played by Jack DeCesare.

Let me repeat that for empty emphasis: In the Heights. Usnavi. Jack DeCesare.

There was at least one rational reason for the fighting. Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (yes, he who would go on to become the author and longtime star of Hamilton), In the Heights is set in the Latino-majority Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, and Usnavi is a Dominican-born resident of it. DeCesare is reportedly of Italian-American descent, which means that the only Latin ancestors he can point to wore togas. While equal opportunity is a cherished value that applies to DeCesare as much as anybody, Latino artists were smart to make a stink about his selection, if only to remind the Chicago theater community that they're here, a major Latino role is still a rarity, and the chance to fill one important.

That bread-and-butter issue got mixed up, though, with the academic one of appropriation—the exceedingly questionable notion that an ethnicity-specific story like Usnavi's doesn't belong to and therefore can't be told by anyone outside that ethnicity. Loads of angry tweets got sent, many passionate posts got posted, but even at an SRO town hall meeting titled "The Color Game: Whitewashing Latinx Stories," the biggest anti-appropriation firebrands couldn't figure out how to reconcile their ideology with democracy, artistic freedom, and the practical interests of artists themselves.

In the Heights makes a great test case for all of this, because the show (an early draft of which played at Wesleyan University in 1999, when Miranda was a student there) is all about the alleged tension between ethnic loyalty and membership in the United States.

Usnavi—whose name famously derives from the first thing his parents saw and misunderstood on arrival in New York: a ship labeled "U.S. Navy"—runs a neighborhood bodega but talks about returning to the Dominican Republic. Veronica, the beautician he oafishly idolizes, just wants an apartment downtown. Usnavi's pal Benny hopes to follow in the footsteps of his bosses, Kevin and Camila Rosario—classic scrappy immigrants who started with nothing and built a solid limo service.

Yet it's the Rosarios' daughter, Nina, whose American dreams have brought her to the breaking point. A formidable student, she won a scholarship to Stanford University but found the expenses, financial and emotional, overwhelming. She flunked out, and spent a quarter couch surfing with friends. Now, however, the school year is over. She’s got to go back to the Heights and face the music.

Fortunately for her, the music is extraordinary. Miranda's score won a Tony when In the Heights hit Broadway in 2008, and it's still a joy here, in all its multicultural elan—the exuberant way it rolls up everything from hip-hop to salsa, corridos to show tunes ("My man, Cole Porter!" exclaims Usnavi) and not so incidentally refutes those who'd claim that it belongs to any earthly grouping narrower than "human." Cleanly, dancingly directed by Brenda Didier, with music direction by Diana Lawrence, this Porchlight version captures the irrepressibility at the heart of the thing: the sense that the twentysomething Miranda couldn't keep himself from turning out song after song after song.

Under such circumstances, Lucia Godinez could allow her Nina more latitude for emotion. Strong as she is in many respects, including a dynamic voice, Godinez gives us too much of the hurt child and not nearly enough of the headstrong, mixed-up, smarter-than-you kid who could (a) go to Stanford and then (b) find a way to fuck it up. Similarly, DeCesare's Usnavi is charming but more than necessarily modest.

That's not a problem for the cast as a whole, though. I can point out plenty of vivid individual efforts: Frankie Leo Bennett's Bowery Boys raffishness as Usnavi's employee, Sonny; Isabel Quintero's happy-Buddha radiance as Usnavi's substitute mom, Abuela Claudia; Stan DeCwikiel Jr.'s pure tenor as the local shaved-ice guy. But it's the sense of ensemble energy that makes this In the Heights delightful. You'd almost think all the wrangling over DeCesare brought them together. v

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