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Review: In the Heights Sounds the First Notes of an Extraordinary Summer

Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Broadway musical gets a lavish screen adaptation.

Dascha Polanco, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Stephanie Beatriz appear in In the Heights, directed by Jon Chu, for Warner Bros. Pictures.
(© Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

I have a confession: I never saw In the Heights when it played Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre from 2008-2011. I always meant to get rush tickets, but I never did. Once it was gone, missing it became one of my greatest Broadway regrets. But, on the bright side, I got to experience In the Heights, the Warner Brothers film adaptation, as a totally new movie-musical — just like millions of fans who are about to discover it. I don't think it's too early to call: In the Heights is the movie of the summer.

You can practically feel the heat coming off the screen in director Jon M. Chu's sweltering vision of Quiara Alegría Hudes's screenplay. It takes place during one of those sticky New York City summers when you sweat so much you might as well be in the Caribbean. Washington Heights bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) wakes up every morning dreaming about the "best days" of his life, when he lived with his father in the Dominican Republic — and he was no more than 8 years old. Like so many immigrants, he wants to use his savings from toiling in New York to move back to the old country and enjoy a more relaxed life running the family beachside bar. But his feelings for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer who longs to move downtown, complicate matters.

While Vanessa and Usnavi dream of leaving Washington Heights, Nina (Leslie Grace) has just come back from her first year at Stanford. Her father (Jimmy Smits) sold half of his taxi dispatch to an organic dry cleaner (Patrick Page) just to pay for freshman year, but Nina is having serious misgivings about returning as a sophomore. Usnavi's little cousin and shop assistant, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), isn't even sure he'll be able to attend college, while skyrocketing rent is forcing Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) to move her salon across the river to the Bronx. With the neighborhood changing and everyone relocating, In the Heights takes place during a summer no one will soon forget — as I suspect will be true about the summer of 2021.

All of this plot is driven forward by Lin-Manuel Miranda's vibrant score, which blends Latin rhythms, hip-hop, and good old-fashioned Broadway pizzazz — who else would rhyme "Cole Porter" with "cold water," pronounced with a heavy New York accent so it matches up? Miranda and Chu pepper the film with little surprises, like an instrumental arrangement of "You'll Be Back" from Hamilton as the hold music for the bursar's office at Stanford. Everything sounds great under the supervision of Broadway orchestrators Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman, whose percussive piano and barrage of brass made me want to get up and dance.

Of course, Chu has hired an army of professionals to do that for us, and it appears as though every inch of pavement from 155th Street to Dyckman is occupied by beautiful people dancing salsa and merengue (an early shot, in which we can see this expansive street scene in the reflection of the bodega window, is particularly striking). Each song bursts with life in Christopher Scott's choreography, especially an astounding production number at Highbridge Pool that surely has Busby Berkeley smiling down from dance heaven.

Chu makes every moment feel over-the-moon magical, but the actors ground the story in real human emotion. That is undeniably true of Ramos, who has grown from the fresh-faced supporting player Broadway audiences first saw in Hamilton into a captivating leading man. His scenes with Barrera were a charming mix of passion and awkwardness that sustains Usnavi and Vanessa's will-they-won't-they tension all the way through.

Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, and Melissa Barrera plays Vanessa in In the Heights.
(© Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Several of the supporting actors shine too, including Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, the childless Cuban immigrant who acts as an adoptive grandmother for half the block. Her big number (set in the pedestrian tunnel of the 191st Street station) is one of the most breathtaking in a film full of showstoppers. Corey Hawkins delivers a heroic performance as Benny, the cab dispatcher in love with Nina. Daphne Rubin-Vega proves why she is one of the great ladies of the stage when she leads the late production number "Carnaval del Barrio." And the composer himself makes a delightful appearance as the neighborhood piragua salesman. There were so many times during this movie when I wanted to jump up and applaud — and then I remembered that I was at a morning screening surrounded by a bunch of masked film critics.

But that won't prevent me from dancing and clapping along during subsequent viewing this summer (I know there will be several). The past year of Covid has robbed us of so much of what makes living in New York City wonderful: the live theater, dance clubs, and the opportunity to meet someone new each day. Even as all of that returns with a vengeance, I know that many of my favorite shops and restaurants will be gone for good. But In the Heights reminded me that for each way New York breaks your heart, it provides a new way for you to fall in love all over again. I'm ready for my summer to begin.

In the Heights opens in cinemas and will be available for streaming on HBO Max on June 11.

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