In the Heights
by George Wolf
I know there’s still plenty of bad out there, but it’s summer, people are getting out in the heat, and it feels like maybe we deserve a few minutes to celebrate.
How about 143 minutes? In the Heights makes them all count, with a summer celebration practically bursting with joyful exuberance.
It’s been 13 years since the stage production won 4 Tony Awards – including Best Musical, on top of Best Original Score and Best Actor for Lin-Manuel Miranda. Since then, Miranda conquered the world with Hamilton (maybe you’ve heard it), so now what seems like a follow up is really a return to his roots.
Miranda’s aged out of the starring role, so Anthony Ramos (Hamilton, A Star Is Born) answers the bell with a breakout turn as Usnavi – the Washington Heights, New York storekeeper with a dream.
As the days until a blackout wind down and the temperature ramps up, Usnavi’s block is buzzing with welcome arrivals, planned departures, and romance in the air.
Nina (Leslie Grace) is home from Stanford with major news to break to her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) while she reconnects with Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher at Kevin’s neighborhood car service.
For his part, Usnavi has finally scored a date with his crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), but it might be too late – she has her sights set on leaving the block behind with a new apartment uptown.
So while the gossip is raging at the hair salon, and the piraqua guy (Miranda) tries to compete with Mister Softee (Hamilton‘s Chris Jackson, who played Benny in the stage version) as the king of cool treats, fate intervenes. Usnavi discovers his bodega has sold a winning lottery ticket – a stroke of luck worth 96 G’s – and then the lights go out.
Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) proves a worthy choice to move the project from stage to screen with magic intact. The most accomplished of directors (see Attenborough and Eastwood) have fallen hard trying to make musical numbers pop on film, but Chu gives Christopher Scott’s choreography the space to be graceful and the intimacy to be gritty.
Miranda’s music meshes irresistibly with the sounds of the street, and from swimming pools to rooftops, more than a few of Chu’s grandly-staged set pieces nearly soar off the screen. And it won’t be just fans of this show who will be giddy, as the Wicked faithful will find plenty of reason to be excited Chu is already in pre-production on that long-awaited film adaptation.
Source writer Quiara Alegría Hudes pens the screenplay here as well, with a heartfelt, character-driven ode to cultural strength and sacrifice. Bookended by Usnavi telling the story of his block to a cute group of youngsters, the tale of Washington Heights is layered with respect for immigrant families just fighting for a place to belong.
And while they may be fighting against gentrification and bigotry, the film’s heart remains unquestionably hopeful, so downright wholesome that even the lack of sweat-stained bodies in the 100-degree heat feels like part of the movie magic.
In the Heights has been saving that magic for the big screen experience, and now that it’s here it is indeed worthy of celebrating – in a theater, with a crowd.
Are we really “back to normal?” Can the American dream still be alive?
For 143 minutes, it sure feels like it.