Music & Lyrics: by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Book: by Quiara Alegria Hudes. At: Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: PorchlightMusicTheatre.org; $43-$51. Runs through: Oct. 23
Porchlight Music Theatre opens its 22nd season with Lin-Manuel Miranda's award winning musical In the Heights.
His musical Hamilton is the talk of the nation, but this was the show that brought him national attentionand in this raucous joyous production you can see why. A neighborhood bodega owner ( Jack DeCesare ) and his cousin ( Frankie Leo Bennett ) run a neighborhood gathering place in a Hispanic neighborhood going through changes. While selling chips, candy and coffee, they see the lives of their friends and neighbors revolve around them. Some musicals suffer from being in small spaces by local theater companies, but a show like In the Heights actually improves. Being surrounded by this neighborhood actually enhances the experience for the audience ( hat tip to scenic designer Greg Pinsoneault ).
The entire company, with choreography by Brenda Didier and Chris Carter, keeps the show moving and hopping. Lucia Godinezas Nina the girl, with the expectations of an entire neighborhood on her shouldersis excellent with a great belting voice. She's matched by the pipes and smooth performance of Stephen Allen as Benny, the ambitious African-American cab/limo driver who works for her dad. Controversial casting aside, Jack DeSare's Usnavi is so charming and self-depreciating, you wish the loud music would get out of his way sometimes. Frankie Leo Bennett, as his cousin, is very funny and a crowd pleaser. Michelle Lautoas Venessa, the girl who wants to escape the neighborhoodhas a nice voice and you like her so much you wish she had more to play in the script.
To round out the neighborhood, you have emotional performances by Jordan BeBose and Keely Vasquez as Nina's parents and Isabel Quintero as the aging matriarch of the neighborhood. Missy Aguilar, as Daniela the overdramatic owner of the salon, really entertains. Leah Davis ( Carla ) has the thankless role of the ditzy salon worker but makes the most of it. Stan DeCwikiel Jr,. as the neighborhood piragua ( shaved ice & fruit syrup ) salesman, brings joy to the stage and brings color to the barrio.
Overall, this is one of Porchlight's finest productions. The show never stops moving and is emotionally on target. By the time the cast is singing "96,000" ( about them dreaming of winning the lottery ) the energy is jumping off the stage.
You can save the hundreds of dollars going to see Hamilton and check out Miranda's original incredible musical of family and neighborhood. This cast and production has the energy, spirit and talent needed to bring it to life.