By Lynn Venhaus
“In the Heights” is indescribably delicious — and one of the best movie musicals of the 21st century, splendidly transferred from stage to screen.
Bursting with exuberance and featuring a bustling street tableau, this long-awaited adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony-winning musical is teeming with colorful sights and sounds.
Besides a richly textured, pulsating score with primarily hip-hop lyrics and a salsa beat, what made the musical special is how it captures a universal story of people chasing their dreams with a specific sense of place.
Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) is the owner of a small bodega in New York City’s Washington Heights. As the neighborhood braces for changes and people follow their dreams, family stories are revealed.
Usnavi has a crush on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who dreams of being a designer and wants to live in the West Village. His childhood friend, Nina (Leslie Grace), the “one who made it out” by landing a scholarship to Stanford University, thinks she is disappointing her dad, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who owns a local car service company. Nina’s love interest, Benny (Corey Hawkins), works for her dad. Meanwhile, Abuelo Claudia (Olga Merediz) dispenses love and advice as the neighborhood’s matriarch. Merediz played the role on Broadway.
And Usnavi discovers his store has sold a winning lottery ticket for $96,000 – money that could make a lot of dreams possible.
As a celebration of Latino heritage, from Caribbean islands, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico, this film arrives at the perfect time – it’s a valuable immigrant representation and a major achievement in 2021.
Set during a blistering summer heat wave in the barrio over the course of three days, you feel “all the feels” — You will fall in love with these characters and their devotion to family, culture and finding their place in the world.
Showcasing an abundance of charisma, three stars are born: Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, Melissa Barrera as Vanessa and Leslie Grace as Nina. Ramos, most known as John Laurens and Alexander’s son Philip in “Hamilton,” sings and dances up a storm, but also has the emotional heft for good-hearted, hard-working Usnavi. Barrera and Grace dazzle in every musical number – and their personal stories tug at the heartstrings.
The entire cast is terrific — Corey Hawkins as Benny, Daphe Rubin-Vega as Daniella, Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, Jimmy Smits as Kevin Rosario and Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny, among them.
Jon M. Chu, who directed “Crazy Rich Asians,” has a flair for keeping things moving at a brisk pace in massive musical numbers but also creating an intimacy with the duets and personal struggles. For a movie with a running time of 2 hours and 23 minutes, that is no small feat.
Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the musical’s original book plus the screen adaptation) brings it into today, with references to Dreamers (DACA), activism and current class struggles. The women characters are all strong role models, too.
Best of all are the energetic dance scenes. Vibrant choreographer Christopher Scott will have you moving and up from your seat! He brings so much joy to these lively street scenes, and their precise moves – on asphalt, park, water or sand – are striking. He is a Busby Berkeley for the modern age, keen on making the action ‘pop.’
And for Miranda’s devotees and “Hamilton” fans, there are a few tasty in-jokes. Check out the phone muzak while Jimmy Smits is on hold – recognize a signature tune? — and there is a rivalry between his “The Piragua Guy” and a Mr. Softee truck (with a certain actor once known as Mr. President – and who played Benny in the original cast). Christopher Jackson and Miranda go way back to 2002.
Miranda was the first composer to put hip-hop lyrics in a Broadway show — and the youngest to win the Tony for Best Music Score in 2009. While that is remarkable in itself, what he has managed in his career to date is awe-inspiring — and means a lot is expected from him. Next up, his directorial debut with “Tick, Tick…Boom,” basically the Jonathan Larson story, which will premiere on Netflix this fall. He credits the “Rent” composer with being one of his influences.
His “Hamilton” Dream Team of Tommy Kail, Alex Lacamoire and Andy Blankenbuehler worked together on all the stage versions of “In the Heights,” so while not specifically involved in the movie, their influence can be felt.
Miranda wrote a new song, “Home All Summer,” which plays over the credits and features Marc Anthony, who has a minor role as Sonny’s father, in addition to Ramos and Grace.
Sonny’s father wasn’t in the original musical, and there are a few alterations here, including a new framing device and ending, but it only adds to the material, not detracts. A few songs were cut from the 25, and the soundtrack now includes 17, including the new one.
Movie musicals can be a dicey proposition these days, for every “Chicago” (Oscar winner) and “Les Miserables” (Best Picture nominee), there is an epic failure like “The Phantom of the Opera” and the unwatchable “Cats.”
This is a fun, global experience that will be a certain summer sizzler. After a pandemic delay, “In the Heights” is a welcome refresher in the magic of music and movies.
“In the Heights” is a musical directed by John M. Chu and starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Corey Hawkins, Marc Anthony and Jimmy Smits. It is rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive references, and runs 2 hours, 23 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: The movie is in theaters starting June 10 and on HBO Max June 10 – July 11.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.