A few years before he set a new standard for a smash hit on Broadway with “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda had another successful show. “In The Heights” ran for three years and won the Tony for Best Musical. Now it has come to the big (and small) screen.
The story takes place in Washington Heights, an area of uptown Manhattan that was once populated by Irish immigrants, but is now mostly Latino. The main character, Usnavi, runs a bodega with his cousin Sonny. Their neighbors include: Abuela Claudia, the matriarch of the neighborhood; Usnavi’s love interest, Vanessa; Nina, a Stanford student who wants to quit school and move home; Kevin, owner of a local taxi company; Benny, who works for Kevin and pines for Nina; salon owner Daniela, who’s moving her business to the Bronx because the rent has gotten too high; and two of her employees, Cuca and Carla.
All of this is framed as a tale about the dreams and desires of Usnavi’s friends and neighbors, which he tells to some children on a beach in his native Dominican Republic. As the individual stories intertwine and overlap, the characters break out into songs and dances — some personal, some involving larger groups. As choreographed by Christopher Scott and directed by Jon M. Chu, “In The Heights” has plenty of well-orchestrated movement and an upbeat feel, even in its sadder scenes.
Some of the song-and-dance sequences really stand out for their exuberance, including one in a public pool that could have been staged by Busby Berkeley. There’s another with two characters starting to embrace on a fire escape before turning ninety degrees as they dance up the exterior wall of the building.
As for the cast, Ramos’ career has been on the rise since he appeared in the original production of “Hamilton,” and he’s quite appealing as Usnavi. However, while he is being promoted as the movie’s star, I was much more impressed by Melissa Barrera and Leslie Grace (Vanessa and Nina) and the ladies of the salon, all of whom have so much energy they practically jump through the screen. Jimmy Smits (who I didn’t know could sing) has a few scenes as Kevin, multi-Grammy winner Marc Anthony has a small role, and Miranda (who played Usnavi on stage, but is now too old) appears as a vendor selling piraguas (flavored ices) — with fellow “Hamilton” star Christopher Jackson his competition as a Mister Softee driver.
Unfortunately, a day after watching the movie, I couldn’t remember even one of its songs, which is a bad sign for a big musical. And thinking back on it, I don’t think there’s a single antagonist laying down obstacles for all the happy folks filling what look like the real streets of Washington Heights. That’s a dramatic problem that can’t be overcome by yet another dance number.
“In The Heights” seems faithfully transferred from its stage version by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the original and this adaptation, but when it was over, I didn’t feel fully satisfied. Certainly not nearly as much as after seeing “Hamilton” or any number of other successful Broadway musicals that have made the leap to the screen.
I give “In The Heights” a 6.5 out of 10. Now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.