Friday, May 24, 2024

Review: “In the Heights” Is a Big Buoyant Valentine from Lin Manuel Miranda to the City He Loves


The first time I saw “In the Heights” was in the spring of 2007 at a little theater on way west 37th St. It took off like a rocket and never stopped, winding up on Broadway as a kind of “Upper Upper West Side Story.” It played 1,184 performances.

Then “Hamilton” happened, and Lin Manuel Miranda just exploded. Suddenly everyone wondered what happened to “In the Heights.”

Jon Chu, of “Crazy Rich Asians” fame, has directed the big screen adaptation, a joyous ebullient Valentine to the city and neighborhood Lin Manuel hails from, Washington Heights. When the movie premieres June 9th at the United Palace Theater right there in WH, there will be dancing in the aisles and dancing in the streets.

Chu’s version is updated, sleek, drenched in color and sound. You can’t not be happy plopped down in the world of Usnavi de la Vega, played by Anthony Ramos in a movie star making turn. Ramos is probably better known from “Hamilton” but this will establish him as he is our guide through the Heights.

Usnavi has been a success running a corner store but he dreams of returning to the his parents’ homeland, the Dominican Republic. He’s trying to get to his new bar there he’s just purchased but several things are keeping him in the Heights including a blossoming romance, a young cousin he’s raising, and his love of the city.

Ramos shows us the sights, and it’s basically all good. “In the Heights” is not “West Side Story” in that there are no terrific tensions. This is a celebration. There are star turns also from Daphne Rubin Vega, sensational, and Olga Merediz each of whom gets a show stopping musical number. Jimmy Smits provides some gravitas as a father who’s trying to get his daughter to leave all this fun and return to Stanford. Corey Hawkins shows off his singing and dancing as Smits’ protege and boyfriend of his wayward daughter.

There are cameos from Lin Manuel Miranda, who plays a street vendor, “Hamilton” star Christopher Jackson. There’s even a nod to “Hamilton” when Smits is holding on the phone and King George’s song from the Pulitzer Prize winning musical plays as Muzak.

“In the Heights” is really about the feel of it, though. The music, the lights, the dancing– lots of dancing, some in a swimming pool that recalls Esther Williams, some up the side of a building a la Fred Astaire.

Plus, Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes have taken their original book for the musical and updated it, tightened it, and opened from the stage to film without missing a beat. The story of Usnavi moves smoothly and efficiently, stopping once in a while so we can all enjoy ourselves.

We waited a year for “In the Heights,” and it was worth it.

PS I watched it at home but you must see “In the Heights” on a big screen. I’m looking forward to that because it was spilling off a 60″ screen.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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