Opening on the Broadway stage in 2008, seven years before “Hamilton” made Lin-Manuel Miranda a household name, his rap opera “In the Heights” garnered attention from audiences and critics. It featured a Latino cast of characters and was set in New York City’s Washington Heights, a neighborhood consisting of immigrants mostly from Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, and Cuba.
The film version, directed by Jon Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians), opened in theaters and HBO Max on June 11 with a huge cast of actors, singers, rappers, and dancers. The lead role of Usnavi was played on stage by Miranda but in the film by the multi-talented Anthony Ramos with Miranda appearing in the cameo role of a street vendor. We are told early on that Usnavi’s name evolved from his father’s having seen a ship at the docks where they landed marked “U.S. Navy,” and eager for his family to integrate into a new culture, used it to name his son.
“In the Heights” resounds with energy and exuberance even as the city enters a record-breaking heat spell. Workers are operating cranes, fire hydrants are swooshing, and Usnavi is busy loading the shelves of his bodega. The beauty shop has opened, although the owner is rapping about leaving the Heights to move her shop to the Bronx. Benny (Corey Hawkins) is speaking clearly and loudly through the mike as he dispatches taxis for the company owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits).
Reflecting the vigor in the community are dozens, if not hundreds, of carefully choreographed singers and dancers performing on the sidewalks and streets of Upper Manhattan and rapping about life in America and the possibility of dreams that may come true. Beneath this frenetic activity, “In the Heights” has several story lines that struggle to compete with the sidewalk extravaganzas. Usnavi recalls the tropical splendor and calmer lifestyle of the Dominican Republic he has left behind. He also longs to express his growing affection for the beautiful Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring dress designer who hopes Usnavi will overcome his shyness and ask her out.
Another plot line that struggles to compete with the distractions of song and dance involves Nina (Leslie Grace), Kevin’s daughter, whom he is sending to Stanford, proud that she was smart enough to be admitted to such a prestigious university. However, Nina has dropped out, not because of academic challenges but from loneliness and inability to fit into campus life. She also missed, while in California, her love interest in her father’s employee, Benny (Corey Hawkins).
Another character that has plot significance is Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her role from the stage play). She is the one who connects Nina with the memories of her now-deceased mother, who wore beautiful gloves to cover hands dried and cracked from cleaning other people’s houses. Claudia is not only a connection to the past but also the purchaser of a lottery ticket that will figure later in the story.
Before “In the Heights” has ended, we are treated to an extravaganza of hip-hop and salsa as the cast and hundreds of extras dance in the streets in celebration of the winning lottery ticket having been bought in Usnavi’s bodega. Joy abounds as the singers speculate what they might do with $96,000 won in a lottery. The exuberance of dancers in the street, even in the formidable heat that has caused a breakdown in New York’s electrical system, inspires a choreographed swimming pool routine that would rival a Busby Berkeley production.
Two Hits: Don’t Miss it!
A Hit & A Miss: You Might Like it.
Two Misses: Don’t Bother.