IN THE HEIGHTS heats up the big-screen comeback and stands on its own as a joyful, heartfelt movie musical

By Sharon Eberson

If you have seen one IN THE HEIGHTS, you have not seen them all.

The movie musical now streaming and in theaters is reimagined, based on, adapted from — let’s just say it is not entirely the IN THE HEIGHTS in your Playbill.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the “Seinfeld” gang might say, but it will surely ruffle the feathers of fans who love songs and characters that have either been eliminated or significantly changed.

Both stage and screen versions are joyful and poignant and have in common that score that leans into hip hop, pop, and Latin beats, plus a slew of talented young artists and lots and lots of heart.

But in adapting IN THE HEIGHTS, librettist/screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda were not satisfied with filming a stage version, a la Miranda’s “Hamilton.”

They took IN THE HEIGHTS to the real Washington Heights neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the Bronx at the northern tip of Manhattan. And they revisited what it means to live, work, and leave a tight-knit neighborhood that in 2019 was still nearly 70 percent Latino.

This new version reflects the changing status of dreamers in the United States since the show won a best musical Tony Award in 2008, plus the input of a newcomer to Miranda’s post-HAMILTON circle, director Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”; “Step Up” sequels).

Pittsburghers may be familiar with the stage musical from the tour and Pittsburgh CLO productions that starred two Carnegie Mellon graduates, Kyle Beltran and Joshua Grosso, respectively. From the very beginning of the movie, it is obvious that the movie intends to stand on its own and not standstill.

The stage’s static set, with the George Washington Bridge looming over a street scene, has morphed into the actual streets where it really is “Lights up on Washington Heights.” Entirely new is a framing device in which protagonist/narrator Usnavi (“Hamilton’s” Anthony Ramos) nestles in an idyllic beach setting, telling a group of children the story of his path to the present.

Anthony Ramos as Usnavi in the “Carnaval Del Barrio” musical number in the IN THE HEIGHTS movie, directed by Jon M. Chu.

We learn quickly that his best days were spent in the Dominican Republic with his parents, both now gone, and at age 30, he has been planning his return. While he’s “gotta get on that,” Usnavi and his 15-year-old cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) are running a bodega during one sweltering, eventful summer in the city.

Ramos steps up to leading man here. After playing dual roles opposite Miranda on Broadway, including Alexander Hamilton’s son in that other Tony-winning musical, Ramos takes over for Miranda as Usnavi, the role LMM played on Broadway. The HAMILTON superstar appears in the film as the “Piragua” guy, a recurring character in the show.

It may be somewhat distracting whenever Miranda appears, but I found it to also be a satisfying handing off of the baton to Ramos, a triple threat who has been moving up the ranks in Hollywood and on the recording scene.

The women on stage and screen are the driving forces of “In the Heights.” They lead the way, as characters on the move up and out of Washington Heights. Daphne Ruben-Vega — “Rent’s” original Mimi — here plays Daniela, the owner of a salon where ladies gather for beauty and gossip. She is headed for the Bronx, a sign of big changes in the neighborhood.

Vanessa, the object of Usnavi’s affections, toils at the salon while working on a move downtown and the launch of her fashion career, a plot point that gets much more screen than stage time. She is played by Melissa Barrera, an NYU-trained actress, and star on Mexican television.

Nina (Leslie Grace, center) visits the Washington Heights salon, where she’s flanked by Carla (Stephanie Beatriz, left) and Daniela (Daphne Ruben-Vega) in “In the Heights.”

The other “Heights” ingenue is Nina (Leslie Grace), who has shouldered the dreams of her community all the way to Stanford. Nina is back for the summer, facing a crisis and fearing to disappoint her father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who runs a car service with dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins).

Kevin has sold part of his business to an interloper — Patrick Page of “Hadestown” and Pittsburgh CLO’s “A Musical Christmas Carol” — to help Nina with finances, but she’s got other worries that are a new twist on the character.

Grace’s performance grows in gravitas as her character progresses, while Hawkins showcases vocal and dance talents not often seen in a wide-ranging career that includes “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Romeo Juliet” on Broadway.

Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina (Leslie Grace), stand in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, which looms over their neighborhood IN THE HEIGHTS

Nina and Benny have a history that is more established on-screen, while some fans may be aghast to learn that the character of Nina’s mother is gone, along with her song “Enough.” Also, MIA is the Spanish-lesson/love song “Sunrise,” one of my favorites, and “Hundreds of Stories.”

Alex Lacamoire, Bill Sherman, and Miranda are reunited for the film’s score, which includes references to the missing songs. While the music is rooted in hip hop and Latin beats, Miranda’s lyrics contain references from Cole Porter to … well, Donald Trump is eliminated in the movie version. Originally, in the song “$96,000,” he was a stand-in for any famous rich person, Miranda has explained. But as we know, IN THE HEIGHTS has changed with the times.

As if to say, “This is a movie, get over it,” there are CGI tricks that could only be accomplished cinematically, plus a spectacular pool scene that could have been choreographed by Busby Berkeley (the choreographer is Christopher Scott, who previously collaborated with Chu on movies including “The LXD: The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers.)

The pool number has the community gathering to fend off the heat and wonder about a lottery ticket sold at the bodega — thus the song, “$96,000.” No one has claimed the ticket … major spoilers ahead, folks.

Usnavi and Sonny, son of a troubled father (Marc Anthony), have grown up under the adoring eye of Cuban immigrant Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz). The audience is privy to her secret — she’s got the ticket. In the stage musical, she shares this with Usnavi and lays out plans for how it is to be used, and then she dies.

Here, she dies without revealing her secret, and the lottery ticket is nearly forgotten for a good portion of the movie. …

That’s enough plot. The movie overflows with it, including concerns over Sonny’s undocumented status.

Another extra you will see only on screen, and a reminder to stay in your seat: There is a scene after the credits. However, if you do not know that Christopher Jackson played Benny on Broadway, or that he played George Washington to Miranda’s title character in HAMILTON, or have never heard of Mister Softee, the presence of the very consequential actor in the movie is of less consequence. But it’s still fun.

There are quite a few Easter eggs like that for theater fans, and which for me definitely warrant a second viewing.

It should be noted that IN THE HEIGHTS debuted June 9 both in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. Evidently, most viewers stayed home on opening weekend. The movie earned $11 million after CNN ran a story headlined: ” ‘In The Heights’: It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s turn to save the box office,” predicting $15 million-$20 million in North American sales. By contrast, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” yet another sequel in that horror series, earned $24 million while also streaming on HBO Max.

I picked IN THE HEIGHTS as my post-pandemic return to movie theaters because I view it as a big summer flick with my kind of superheroes: aspiring, striving, singing, dancing New Yorkers. It ticked off all of those boxes for me, plus those giant dance numbers look great on a big screen.

I can’t say that I would run out and buy the soundtrack — vocally, Andrea Burns, Robin De Jesus, Mandy Gonzalez, Karen Olivo, and more from Broadway are still top of the charts in my book — however, when I was not thinking, “Oh no they didn’t,” I was thoroughly enjoying a movie musical that is of the moment and a heartfelt embrace of a close-knit community.

In the context of movie-makers being true to their vision while honoring the original, what they have delivered is a plum of a summer movie I can’t wait to watch again and take it on its own merits.

It also paves the way for a better-known urban musical, also facing the scrutiny of diehard fans. That wasn’t lost on me when the trailer for Stephen Speilberg’s “West Side Story” popped up on the screen.

And how’s this for pressure to hit new heights on screen: Jon M. Chu’s next movie musical assignment is as the director of “Wicked.”


All photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

You can enter to win tickets or exclusive merchandise to IN THE HEIGHTS as part of the outdoor concert “Drive ‘N Drag Saves 2021,” @ 7 and 9:30 p.m., June 15-16, at the PPG Arena parking lot, 1301 Western Ave., featuring “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 13 finalists GottMik and Rosé. The festivities will include a spot to take pictures under the Washington Heights bridge. In the springtime edition of “Drive ‘N Drag Saves 2021,” which launched in July 2020, audience members can ditch their cars and enjoy the show from socially distanced party patios. Tickets at VossEvents.com start at $75 per car for two people.

Categories: Reviews