Friday, June 11, 2021


At a moment when so many feel isolated, disconnected, left behind by the vagaries of a difficult year and a stratified society increasingly emphasizing everyone-for-themselves lonely responsibility, here’s a story of a neighborhood. It’s disappearing, in the process of getting priced out by gentrification, and in danger of losing its distinctive personality. That’s New York City for you. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton musical In the Heights tells this story, inhabiting the world of Washington Heights, where the Latin music flows  in melodious Spanish lyrics and salsa rhythms, and the food simmers as the people dream—some yearning for escape up the ladder of success, while others find comfort in the world they and their neighbors have built for themselves, a little bit of their home countries carried over into their American dream. The movie adaptation, scripted by the stage production’s co-author Quiara Alegría Hudes, is as broad and generous and alive as it is specific and well-observed. It’s a constant delight in its unfolding, a musical that leaves you feeling for the characters as much as humming the tunes on the way out.

All told, it builds to a moving expression of communal spirit and togetherness in a fountain of color and movement and dance, bringing each member of the cast to center stage for winning spotlight. The story — textured and swirling — takes place during a heat wave, and circles the concerns of a wide ensemble of characters. We meet Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a young bodega owner who hopes to return to the Dominican Republic someday. He’s crushing on the pretty young stylist (Melissa Barrera) who enjoys her gossipy co-workers at the salon (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, and Dascha Polanco), but would prefer to be a fashion designer. Usnavi’s business-minded best friend (Corey Hawkins) is interested in the cute college girl (Leslie Grace) back for the summer visiting her entrepreneur father (Jimmy Smits). Elsewhere is the undocumented teenager (Gregory Diaz IV) and his alcoholic father (Marc Anthony), a sweet elderly woman (Olga Merediz) who plays abuela to the entire block, and a snow-cone vendor (Miranda) who harbors a resentment of the ice cream truck. They’re all interconnected, even when they don’t want to be.

As the intersecting dreams and dramas play out against the sizzling sidewalks and easy flow of the hip-hop merengue, the musical numbers strut out in broad, bold studio style, a modern Arthur Freed slick spectacle with a little break-dancing here, a little Gene Kelly there, a little Busby Berkeley everywhere. Director Jon M. Chu brings the sense of movement and space that made his Step Up 3D so beautifully expressive, and commits, with that series’ choreographer Christopher Scott, to showing the full glory of dancers in perfect synchronicity and deeply felt emotive power. Here a community pool becomes a glorious watery number Esther Williams would recognize, the side of a fire escape becomes the site of a couple so in love they could float up the wall, a subway becomes a tunnel of ghostly memories, and an apartment courtyard becomes a “carnaval del barrio.” The best numbers go on and on and I felt I could revel in their joyous eruption of togetherness for hours. The movie succeeds by tapping into the show’s empathetic imagination, proudly sensitive and sentimental befitting its pounding backbeat, but wise to cast a somewhat hard-edged eye on the limits of the American dream. After all, this neighborhood is slipping away, but the traditions will live on for those who dare to keep them alive. This movie loves this place and these people too much to let it go away unnoticed, and throws a massive block party of a musical to celebrate. What a well-timed ecstatic burst of a lively tribute to the restorative power of community connections.

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