Before there was “Hamilton,” there was “In the Heights,” the Broadway musical that put composer Lin-Manuel Miranda on the map.
Containing many of the same elements – and sounds -- “In the Heights” was a first draft of greatness.
Now, on the big screen, it’s a more joyous slice of life, filled with enough dances to make the folks from “West Side Story” skulk away in shame.
Director Jon M. Chu gives the story a brighter hue, too, making it seem less desperate than the tale told on stage.
A bodega owner named Usnavi (played by Miranda on stage, Anthony Ramos here) is the touchstone for a community of characters living in New York’s Washington Heights. Interrelated, connected and all able to sing and dance, they dream of a lottery win that could give them a ticket out. When Usnavi learns that someone bought a ticket worth $96,000 at his store, the wheels start turning.
Usnavi would love to return to the Dominican Republic and restore his family home; Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), his crush, would like to act on her design dream; Benny (Corey Hawkins) would like to get back with his girlfriend Nina (Leslie Grace) who, in turn, would like to live in a community that understands her. For the others, Vanessa is already a winner. She got into Stanford and has the ability to do something much bigger, much better. Her father (Jimmy Smits), meanwhile, just wants to get out from under the financial burden of running Rosario’s, a cab service.
To show how family is paramount in the Latino community, “In the Heights” leans into the role Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) plays as Usnavi’s doting relative and a surrogate grandmother for everyone in the neighborhood. She has a relationship with everyone and (if you can’t already guess) casts a wide shadow over all those with dreams.
While writer Quiara Alegria Hudes updates the stage original to include DACA references and protest rallies, they’re not as powerful as some of the original themes. Indeed, there are so many Busby Berkeley-like production numbers you can conclude everyone is relatively happy despite individual woes. Those numbers (choreographed by Christopher Scott) take the large cast into swimming pools, around fire hydrants, into the streets and, literally, on the walls of buildings. It’s a lot – maybe too much – but it doesn’t screech to a halt. Like Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” this is a celebration of culture, albeit in abbreviated form.
Miranda gets a number, too, as the shaved-ice salesman who pushes a cart through the constantly moving neighborhood. Christopher Jackson (who was also in the original) turns up as a rival during that big Lin-Manuel production and it’s fun to see them interact. Still, the showcase isn’t crucial to the film’s success.
Because the story is told through Usnavi’s eyes (he’s telling children about that fateful summer), there isn’t a question about his ability to get to the Dominican Republic. But there are a few surprises (like the identity of the lottery ticket holder) that keep us just as rapt as the kids.
Chu could have pared a few musical numbers and had greater impact. But what you see is as exuberant as anything in “Fame,” its cinematic cousin.
Ramos and Merediz are great actors, able to hold our attention; those around them are one or two scenes away from being plot devices. Like “La La Land,” “In the Heights” is best when it invites audience members to join in. Life isn’t so bad when there’s a party in the offing. And, if someone in the crowd happens to be $96,000 richer, even better.
This is an ideal pandemic antidote.