IN THE HEIGHTS
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jon M. Chu
Writer: Quiara Alegria Hudes, based on the musical stage play with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, concept by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV
Opens: June 11, 2021
If home is where the heart is, the one concept that you can predict from the first minutes of this dazzling musical is this: Though the people of this neighborhood may have come from the Dominican Republic, Washington Heights is home. Unless you can play spectacular baseball, you can dream more of success in Nueva York than in Santo Domingo. What’s more, the people surrounding the subway stop at W. 181 Street in northern Manhattan have created their own DR, perfectly willing to put up with the summer’s heat and the occasional loss of electric power since they have the ambition to work hard, hearing that the money will come. Or so we American optimists believe.
Director Jon M. Chu, best known in these parts for the runaway hit “Crazy Rich Asians” about well-to-do people in New York, one of whom goes to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family, now takes on people who are rich at least in spirit. As we learn from a variety of Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs and lyrics and a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, the Tony-awards winning, three-years’-running Broadway play is gloriously taken to the big screen. The musical loses nothing by the transfer and even gains, as the neighborhood by the George Washington Bridge is sometimes filled with a near-mile of dancing people, all of whom could get places on TV’s Dancing with the Stars.
Anthony Ramos holds the story together as Usnavi, who runs a bodega with his cousin, his unique name taken from a U.S. Navy ship, perhaps the first English letters his parents saw upon their arrival in Nueva York. Director Cho, knowing that people who attend musicals live for song and dance just as opera lovers live for the arias, gives Ramos and company a chance to show their mettle in hip-hop (though not taking up the same time as it did in Miranda’s “Hamilton”), in jazz, and in Latin dances namely salsa and merengue. Ramos, the 29-year-old actor known to cinephiles for his roles in “Hamilton” as Philip Hamilton and Ramon in “A Star is Born” gets the tale rolling by telling a long story to a group of young people on the beach, including the adorable Iris played by Olivia Perez in her sophomore movie role.
Usnavi, having come here with his parents, wants to move up the ladder more quickly than he could as a New York bodega owner, and dreams of going back to a Caribbean paradise. He saves his dollars to buy a kiosk in the DR that had been owned by his father. He is fond of his one employee, his teen cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and tries to coax him into changing his roots as well. But Sonny, despite living with an alcoholic dad, still prefers New York over any move. Usnavi has longed for a hotter relationship with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who wants to move up the social ladder by getting into the downtown Manhattan fashion industry. If Usnavi is the movie’s center, Claudia (Olga Merediz), the entire neighborhood’s would-be abuela (grandmother), takes the role of mentor, watching lovingly over her flock.
The story’s other romance, between Benny (Corey Hawkins), a taxi dispatcher, and Nina (Leslie Grace), is noted particularly for Nina’s apparent going the wrong way on the road to success. Though a freshman at Stanford, she has dropped out, concerned that her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) cannot afford the tuition, but mostly because as a Latino she feels a fish out of water in the prestigious California institution. This is a surprise considering that Stanford, like so many other top universities in the U.S., make a point to have a diverse body of students. (She might feel more comfortable at NYU or Columbia, where she may have been accepted as well.)
But hey, this is a musical, the crowd-pleasing scene taken over by song and dance. Of particularly merit is a Busby Berkeley-like scene in a pool, the wall-to-wall dancing in the neighborhood where cinematographer Alice Books trains her lenses on location, the audience wondering how the company was able to take up so many blocks in a normally busy neighborhood with no interference by passers-by.
Politics is not ignored. There lies a worrisome threat of a potential cancellation of DACA by some undocumented folks, and gentrification is raising rents in the area, so salon proprietor Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) cannot afford the increases and is moving—but not to the DR, only up north to Bronx’s Grand Concourse. It’s a shame that she is on her last days in the town considering the delicious gossip that these customers spread while getting their hair done and their nails painted. The most imaginative song-and-dance is by Benny and Nina who appear to be Mr. and Mrs. Spiderman, walking straight up and down the walls of an old apartment building. (If you watched Stephen Colbert doing push-ups in a recent show when he was in truth simply extending his arms, you realize that all that had to be done was to move the camera on its side.)
If you liked “Hamilton” for its sense of history (lacking in this show) and its emphasis on a steady diet of rap, you might find that artistry less developed in “In the Heights.” Still, the lenses are in love with all these people. The musical on the whole is provocative, engrossing, poignant; a high-voltage treasure.
143 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A
Overall – A-