Big dance numbers set to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs put the magnificent cast in motion.
It would be sooooooo cool in more ways than one if the sensational musical “In the Heights” had an intermission, at which point the audience could file into the lobby and visit a piragua stand featuring shaved ice cones in a variety of flavors. For this is a perfect summer movie arriving in a reopening summer, and a heat wave and subsequent power blackout become major plot points in the story — and yes, from time to time we see a piraguero pushing his cart down the block, hawking those refreshing icy treats.
That vendor is played by the one and only Lin-Manuel Miranda, who forever will have “Hamilton” attached to his name but scored his first major Broadway triumph writing the music and lyrics and playing the lead in the Tony Award-winning “In the Heights” in the late 2000s. The film adaptation (with superb direction from John M. Chu of “Crazy Rich Asians”) was originally scheduled for a June 2020 release but was postponed due to the pandemic — and while it will be available simultaneously on HBO Max, one hopes the true streaming phenomenon will involve millions of movie fans streaming into theaters to catch this infectiously entertaining, fantastically choreographed, consistently involving and absolutely gorgeous musical spectacle on the biggest screen and with the best sound possible.
At 41, Miranda is still a young man, but he has aged out of playing the role of the twentysomething corner bodega owner Usnavi — a role now played to winning effect by Anthony Ramos (who played John Laurens/Philip Hamilton in original Broadway production of “Hamilton”). Usnavi is proud of his multicultural neighborhood of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, and he loves the people he’s known forever — but he dreams of buying and restoring the beachfront bar once owned by his father in the Dominican Republic.
Nor is Usnavi the only one looking to escape the Heights. Melissa Barrera’s Vanessa, who works at the local hair and nail salon that is the gossip hub of the neighborhood, yearns to move downtown and break into the fashion industry. Salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) is getting ready to move her business to the Bronx due to gentrification-induced rent increases. Leslie Grace’s Nina has already left the neighborhood and spent a year at Stanford, though she’s home for the summer and questioning whether she’ll ever fit in at the elite university.
For now, though, they’re all still in the Heights, along with Jimmy Smits’ Kevin, who is Nina’s widowed father and has sold half his car service business in an uphill battle to pay for her education; Corey Hawkins’ Benny, who works for Kevin and is in love with Nina; Gregory Diaz IV’s Sonny, an undocumented teen who is Usnavi’s cousin and protégé, and Olga Merediz’ Abuela Claydia, a Cuban immigrant who has helped raise pretty much the entire neighborhood.
These are the core cast members of “In the Heights,” and their interactions and romances and friendships and betrayals and triumphs and tragedies make for a sometimes melodramatic and soapy but always involving multi-story thread. From a dazzling opening ensemble street-corner set piece to the celebratory “Carnaval del Barrio” (taking place during a blackout and 106-degree temps) to a Busby Berkeley-esque water dance with nearly the entire cast at the Highbridge Pool to a sultry and intense dance number set in a nightclub, “In the Heights” features multiple group numbers incorporating pop, merengue, hip-hop, salsa and classic Broadway influences, and you’ll find it impossible to keep still in your seat. (At the very least your toes will be tapping.)
Perhaps even more effective are the more contemplative, story-advancing ballads, as when Benny and Nina duet on “When the Sun Goes Down” as they magically dance on the sides of an apartment building, or when Abuela Claudia is equal parts mournful and joyful when she remembers her childhood in Havana and sings “Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith”).
(Updates to the Broadway production include a DACA subplot with an immigrants’ rights protest, and there are other moments of political and social commentary — but it’s never heavy-handed and is authentically an integral part of the fabric of life in the Heights.)
Director John M. Chu moves his camera with brilliance and grace, though I do wish a few of the numbers featured less frantic cutting and more long shots displaying the enormous talents of the singers and dancers. The cast is universally magnificent, with veterans such as Jimmy Smits and Daphne Rubin-Vega turning in their typically strong work, and Olga Merediz reminding us of why she was nominated for a Tony for playing Abuela Claudia on Broadway. Mostly, though, this is the story of the young people, and the next-generation actors are an amazingly talented, charismatic and screen-popping group of performers. Anthony Ramos has charm to burn, while Melissa Barrera and Leslie Grace have the onscreen presence and talents to become major movie stars.
It would be a cliché to call “In the Heights” the Feel-Good Movie of the Year, but it would also be accurate. Perhaps for these times we might call it the Feeling-Better Movie of the year.