Talented Cast Dances Its Way Through Washington Heights

by Camille Borodey

After Disney+ released a live stage performance of the 2015 Tony Award-winning musical “Hamilton” last year, fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda have been eagerly anticipating the film adaptation of his first musical, “In The Heights.”

Directed by Jon M. Chu, whose career took a positive turn after the success of his 2018 rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians,” “In The Heights” is adapted from Miranda’s 2008 stage musical, written with playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes. After a delayed release due to covid restrictions, the burning question from viewers is “In the Heights” as good as “Hamilton?” Maybe not. Despite this, “In The Heights” is still visually spectacular and everything a movie musical should be.

The morning before a neighborhood blackout, Usnavi (“Hamilton” alumni Anthony Ramos) introduces us to his predominantly Dominican Washington Heights block in New York, where he runs a bodega with his cousin, Sonny (Robin de Jesús). The neighborhood matriarch, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, Reprising her Tony Award Winning Broadway role), drops in to give him some coffee advice. “She’s not really my Abuela,” Usnavi says, “but she practically raised me. This block is her escuela.”

With rising rent prices things in the neighborhood are changing, and Usnavi has two goal on his mind: making it back to the Dominican Republic to revive his father’s business and scoring a date with the intimidatingly beautiful Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer, who is dreaming of an apartment uptown. Ramos and Barrera have great chemistry, and I look forward to seeing them in future movies.

While some can’t wait to get out, Nina (Leslie Grace), a college student sinking under the pressure of being the neighborhood’s golden child, is relieved to return from Stanford for the summer, especially after facing several racist microaggressions at school. Her ex-boyfriend Benny (an uber charming Corey Hawkins) is hoping to rekindle their romance. While Benny and Nina sing a lovely duet that features some stunning camera work of them dancing up a building, many of their relationship woes were cut from the film. However, this allows us to focus more on Nina’s educational dilemma, which becomes an important part of the story when she learns one of her friends faces immigration issues.

Plot-wise, “In The Heights” doesn’t necessarily break any ground. The story follows common tropes of following your dreams, standing up for what you believe in, and remembering where you came from, but maybe this is the type of wide-eyed optimism we need to bring us back to theaters after a tumultuous year.

Director Chu does a stunning job at bringing Miranda’s play to screen. The characters do not have to just tell us how Washington Heights makes them feel because Chu’s direction shows us. We get swept up in Vanessa’s urgency as she runs down the empty street while giant sheets of colorful fabric fall from the buildings. We can feel Abuela’s hardship and strength as she passionately sings about her experience of coming to America from Cuba. We can feel the hot summer air radiating off the payment as Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) leads the sulking neighborhood in a vibrant group number during the blackout. It’s the visuals that drive the film’s emotion, creating an atmosphere of emotion and fantasy.

Miranda is truly a gifted songwriter and trailblazer for the American musical, combining elements of hip hop, Latin music, and classic Broadway. He also seems to be having a lot of fun in the small role as Piragüero (the shaved ice guy), who feuds with an ice cream truck driver, Mr. Softee (another Hamilton alumni, Christopher Jackson).

There are two instances during the film where Nina feels uncertain about the future, and she steps forward, closes her eyes, and says, “Let me just listen to my block,” and that is exactly what we get the pleasure of doing. A colorful display of culture, music, and optimism, “In The Heights” is the perfect way to invite audiences back to the big screen.

“In the Height” is playing in theaters and available on HBO Max.

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