By Lauren Quinlan, Chief Critic
Graphic by Klaire Brezinski
If you have paid attention to the theatre news stratosphere in the past few months, you may have heard about a controversy surrounding Chicago’s Porchlight Theatre and their production of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Tony-winning musical, In The Heights. The debate centered on the decision to cast Jack DeCesare, an actor of Italian descent (read: not Latino) in the role of Usnavi – the role which was originated by Miranda, who is himself the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. Naturally, some of the theatre community was furious over this decision that, based on Chicago’s sizable Latinx theatre talent, could have been avoided.
There is plenty to say about this production in the abstract, but in reality, Porchlight’s decision did not pay off.
From the moment DeCesare steps on stage, it is clear that he is lost in the role. A pillar of the Washington Heights community and narrator of the musical, Usnavi is meant to infuse the enclave with even more energy than it already has. DeCesare’s lack of focus, however, sucks the life out of an already lackluster depiction of a New York City block in the summertime. This blasé approach permeates itself throughout the rest of the production through the choices of its almost all-white design team more than its ensemble of actors.
As director and co-choreographer, Brenda Didier is guilty on two counts. Her weak vision of the show is evident throughout the two-and-a-half hours, but especially through her choreography, where the actors shuffle their way through oddly lyrical movements that fail to help tell the story of Washington Heights. During most of the numbers, the hard-working ensemble appeared dead in the eyes – exhausted from the ordeal of this production. The few moments of dialogue woven throughout the numerous dance numbers fall flat, showcasing empty city streets and half-baked background ensemble moments. Watching this, I was frequently reminded of bad community theatre and not the formidable work I know Porchlight is capable of based on their past productions of Sideshow and Dreamgirls.
Another Lin-Manuel Miranda musical you may have heard of is Hamilton. Winning nearly every major award it was nominated for, the hip-hop musical about America’s Founding Fathers has revived interest in American history and musical theatre in unprecedented ways. Porchlight has seized that interest and directed their patron base to see Miranda’s first musical before they get to be in the room where it happens. Porchlight’s marketing of their production as “From the Creator of Hamilton…” combined with their unsavoury casting choices and series of trainwreck responses to said decisions put a bad taste in my mouth. If they truly wanted to honor Miranda and the passionate, game-changing ideas he poured into In The Heights and Hamilton, Porchlight may have wanted to actually pay attention to the deliberate choice made by Miranda to write musicals that allow Latinx actors to showcase their talents in roles that celebrate their heritage – a rarity in the American theatre.
A significant part of In The Heights is told through rap, much of it done by Usnavi. DeCesare was clearly not up to the challenge, frequently slurring his words together and putting on some sort of accent not native to any land or culture. Enunciation is key to rap, and if key storytelling moments cannot be understood by the audience, the production as a whole will suffer. The raps in In The Heights are not as fast or sophisticated as the ones in Hamilton, but their importance is the same. If Porchlight truly wanted to celebrate Miranda’s talents, they could have gone beyond the “lip service” (as Quiara Alegria Hudes stated in her response to the casting controversy) of being committed to diversity and actually set out to celebrate the Latinx talent pool in Chicago, and not just cash in on Hamilton fever.
Watching the production, I went back and forth in my head about whether DeCesare “looks” Latino enough to play the part of Usnavi – a hot-button issue at the center of the controversy that has presented many nuanced and complicated questions that should still be discussed long after Porchlight’s production closes. I came to the conclusion that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if DeCesare “looks the part” or not. Informed theatre patrons and practitioners – all the way up to the creators, Miranda and Hudes – are aware of his ethnicity. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the ensemble of In The Heights, and Chicago deserves better than what Porchlight has served them.
In the Heights plays at Stage 773 through November 19th