Review: 'In The Heights' a sizzling summer musical sensation that needs the big screen
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
When Lin Manuel Miranda and John M. Chu’s musical adaptation “In The Heights” finally lands in theaters - after getting postponed due to the pandemic - audiences will have the option of viewing it at home via their HBO Max subscription. But as movie theaters are reopening, and life begins returning to normal, if any movie should welcome eager moviegoers back to the cinemas, it’s “In The Heights,” the first must-see event of the year. A sizzling groundbreaking sensation when it landed off-Broadway in 2007 before transferring to Broadway and snagging four Tony Awards, including Best Musical (long before Miranda became a household name thanks to “Hamilton”) “In The Heights” pops with flashy, infectious tunes and tells an engaging, beautiful tale of community and cultural identity.
Audiences who devoured “Hamilton” will have their palettes cleansed once again with Miranda’s lyrical ballads and Anthony Ramos’ magnetic performance. Those in the musical theater circuit know what Ramos brings to the table, but now the entire world can too. Translating hit musicals from stage-to-screen can be a challenging demand for the most talented filmmakers, but Chu (”Crazy Rich Asians“) seems relaxed and at ease; the titular opening number is a sprawling, epic ten-minute sequence within the Upper Manhattan, predominantly Latino community (that provided Miranda his inspiration) where everyone is crawling into the streets, spilling out of local shops, and, of course, busting a move. Choreographer Christopher Scott doesn’t lose any of the original musical’s luster, “In the Heights” consistently soars.
In the 2007 staged production, Miranda played Usnavi, a Washington Heights bodega owner who immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was a small child. Here, Miranda cheerfully steps aside and gives Ramos the spotlight, instead playing the jubilant Piragüero man, a neighborhood staple who sells different flavors of shaved ice, which during the hot summer months melts about as quickly as they’re purchased. “In The Heights” allows a few blemishes to peek through the cracks, and devout, eagle-eyed fans, will notice a few omissions (a given for any stage-to-screen adaptation); and Chu occasionally undermines character development in lieu of breezy, community centric musical numbers. But with an electric, diverse cast such as this, it’s hard to blame him.
Considering the idle themes of gentrification that exist in the background, “In The Heights” can’t resist detouring into melodramatic territory, when a touch more shade of gritty realism might have heightened several of Miranda’s undercooked suplots. Nevertheless, “In The Heights” is still a breakthrough for Latin American representation on screen, just as it was a decade ago on stage, and the blend of hip-hop and salsa with savvy rap beats and traditional show tunes creates a cathartic experience.
The main plot - though there are several intersecting at once - involves Usnavi (Ramos) selling the bodega and reopening his father’s beachside bar back in the Dominican Republic, a place which holds precious childhood memories. It’s met with inner apprehensions as it means giving up any chance with longtime crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer who also wants to ditch Washington Heights.
Since his parents died at a young age, Usnavi has been looked after by Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz who played the role on Broadway, snagged a Tony nomination and could nab an Oscar for her work here) who practically oversees every child in the community. Usnavi hopes to bring along his street-smart and extremely resourceful cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV - outstanding) to his new gig, but prying him from a troubled home makes it complicated, as does his undocumented status, one of the subplots that never cooks the way it should.
Elsewhere, Benny (Corey Hawkins), a Black dispatcher for a cab service rekindles with old flame Nina (Leslie Grace), whose father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) owns the failing company. Nina’s just returned home for Stanford, though she has no intentions of going back much to the bemoan of her strict father who wants his daughter to succeed at life the way he never did. You can feel the weight on Nina’s shoulders: a first generation college student who got accepted to Stanford? Those are big expectations to fill, but the romance that brews between herself and Benny is far more contagious. The two are given the best musical sequence of the film when they duet: “When the Sun Goes Down” a scene which defies the laws of gravity and would make Gene Kelly smile.
Elsewhere, elsewhere, there’s a gossipy hairdressing salon featuring Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco) who love to dish tea and are preparing for their own relocation. This all happens as the community is rallying around a potential life changing $96,000 winning lottery ticket - purchased at Usnavi’s store - which, naturally, leads to a group musical number at the local pool where everyone belts how they’d spend the cash, an episode that won’t soon be forgotten.
“In The Heights” - at nearly two hours and thirty minutes - can sometimes struggle to contain the lightning-in-the-bottle energy of the musical’s identity. There’s an odd framing device screenwriter/playwright Quira Alegria Hudes uses to misdirect the audience’s perception not in the original musical, though its climatic payoff slapped a gigantic smile (and even rendered a few tears) on my face.
The sense of camaraderie and affection for these characters meshes exceptionally with the limitless boundaries of feature moviemaking. “Hamilton” this is not, but “In The Heights” is crafted with pride and resilience. At a time when we’ve been missing (or craving) human interaction, we need something to tell us we’re going to see the other side. “In The Heights” marks a semi-return to normalcy: one in which we can dance in the streets, sing on the rooftops, and finally hug the ones we love.
IN THE HEIGHTS opens in theaters and on HBO Max Friday, June 11th.