The Stew Review: ‘In the Heights’ a crackling big-screen musical

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) dance in a scene from In the Heights.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) dance in a scene from In the Heights.(Warner Bros. Pictures)
Updated: Jun. 16, 2021 at 10:54 AM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - The musical may be a (mostly) dead remnant of the Hollywood studio system, but no one told that to everyone who made “In the Heights,” which has all the heart and energy of its genre predecessors wrapped around a story that feels both personal and timeless.

Before he unleashed the once-in-a-generation sensation of “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote “In the Heights,” a musical that focuses on a medley of personalities who all live in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. Life for these people is changing, and at a far more rapid pace than any expected or is prepared for.

Our lead is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who dreams of moving back to the Dominican Republic and restoring his family’s old beachfront shop, but he feels obligated to stay, ahem, in the Heights and run the bodega they left in his charge. He’s got an unrequited crush on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who wants to move to Manhattan in the hope of becoming a fashion designer. Meanwhile, Nina (Leslie Grace) is struggling to let her friends and family know she’s not returning to Stanford for the fall semester as she feels a responsibility to follow through on being “the one who made it out.” Her feelings are all the more complicated when reuniting with her ex-boyfriend, Benny (Corey Hawkins).

Their lives crisscross and tangle over the course of three days amid a neighborhood-wide blackout. It’s an ensemble of love, regret, passion, anxiety, doubt, insecurity, hopes and dreams. It’s a story about the struggle between being true to yourself and bearing the weight of a legacy and the expectations that come with it. Our leads are all pretty and charismatic in the way you’d want and expect from a musical of this sort. Ramos’ boyish charisma in particular shines through best as he anchors the proceedings. The real question, though given that this is a musical: Can they sing? The answer is: Sure? This is, after all, spawned from a Lin-Manuel Miranda joint which means that while there is some traditional singing, there’s a whole lot of his particular brand of hip-hopera. The cast performs well and I enjoy the performance style, but it won’t give audiences a true test of the cast’s vocal prowess. Then again, it doesn’t really matter. The heart and soul of the cast and story shines through thanks to Miranda’s music and lyrics and the gusto with which the cast performs.

The film as a whole is simply overflowing with an unstoppable energy every time one of the neighborhood’s denizens bursts into a new number. It’s difficult to recall the last time I watched a movie that was so eager and capable of just feeling so alive. “In the Heights” takes its characters and their plights seriously, but never feels overtly serious. Sometimes that’s to the film’s detriment as that energy rarely relents. Characters do get quieter moments to themselves and with each other, but the film could definitely use a bit of modulation when it comes to execution. Still, it’s hard to fault Miranda and Director John M. Chu for this approach. It’s a genuine treat to behold such a colorful and non-cynical production. After a year-plus of being cooped up in our homes, merely seeing dozens upon dozens of real, actual humans singing and dancing in the streets never got old.

Chu, best known for his recent hit dramatic comedy, “Crazy Rich Asians,” has adapted the Broadway show into a production that both honors its stage-bound roots while also stretching its legs enough to justify being a big-screen spectacle. In other words, if you’re worried this will be a repeat of “Hamilton” when it was released on Disney+ (i.e. just a filmed version of the stage show), don’t be.

While it is, as the name would imply, confined to The Heights, it never feels stage-bound as Chu makes ample use of streets, neighborhood pools, clubs, apartments, bodegas and even building facades thanks to his occasional dalliance with magical realism. It’s also not a surprise that the choreography and camera work during the musical numbers crackles on-screen given Chu’s track record with two of the best entries in the “Step Up” franchise*. He feels right at home here and I’d happily watch any other Broadway adaptations he might find himself attached to.

“In the Heights” feels like a rare bird, and not just because musicals are infrequent at best these days at the movies. It’s an uncynical, earnest piece of filmmaking that wears its sentiment and soul on its sleeve. It could stand to display more nuance at times, but it’s hard to be mad at something that’s so eager to show you a good time.

“In the Heights” is currently playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

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