IN THE HEIGHTS

Producers: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegria Hudes, Scott Sanders, Anthony Bregman and Mara Jacobs   Director: Jon M. Chu   Screenplay: Quiara Alegria Hudes   Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Patrick Page, Noah Catala, Marc Anthony and Christopher Jackson   Distributor: Warner Bros.

Grade: B+

Before “Hamilton,” there was “In the Heights,” the first musical with a score by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which he began writing in college.  Three years after he graduated, the show, with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, had a tryout in Connecticut, and two years later it arrived off-Broadway.  In 2008 it transferred to Broadway, with Miranda himself in the lead, and though it wasn’t the cultural phenomenon “Hamilton” would later become, it ran for nearly three years, winning four Tonys, including those for Best Musical and Best Score.

Now unlike “Hamilton,” which thus far has hit the screen only in the form of a slick filming of the Broadway production that premiered on Disney+, “Heights” has gotten the full cinematic treatment, and it emerges as an exuberant, if somewhat diffuse, love letter to a neighborhood threatened by gentrification and the immigrant residents struggling to hold onto their cultural identity.

The place is Manhattan’s Washington Heights, the time three sweltering days in the July of an undisclosed year, during an electrical blackout.  The residents are predominantly Latinix, from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba.  They express their closeness and unity in the rousing opening number, a street ensemble exhilaratingly staged by choreographer Christopher Scott, who here, as elsewhere (a swimming-pool sequence that evokes a Busby Berkeley routine, a climbing-the-walls duo that’s a homage to Fred Astaire’s ceiling dance in “Royal Wedding”) happily nods to past classics. 

It’s the terpsichorean elements, in fact, that are the best parts of this adaptation, for which Hudes has fiddled with her original book (postponing, for example, to the very end a revelation that originally came much earlier) while remaining faithful to its overall message.  Of course, the dances wouldn’t have half the impact if it weren’t for Miranda’s infectious score, a piquant blend of mostly Latin pop styles that sends one’s toes tapping, though it wouldn’t be advisable to get up and start gyrating in the aisle.  (Of course if you’re at home watching on HBO Max, where the film is available for a month from the day of its theatrical premiere—another of this year’s Warner Bros. simul-releases from the studio—the impulse may prove irresistible.

The lyrics are less impressive, especially in the more plot-centered numbers, largely because they’re wedded to Hudes’ screenplay, which, with its proclivity to jump from one to another of a large array of characters, lacks focus. 

The dominant figure, though, is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, in the part originated by Miranda on Broadway), who runs a modest bodega.  He also serves as narrator, explaining the neighborhood ethos to four kids while apparently on a beach.  One of the questions that runs through the picture is whether he’ll sell the store and return to the Dominican Republic, where he dreams of rebuilding his father’s now-dilapidated bar.  The other is whether he’ll ever get up the courage to reveal his love to Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who harbors the hope of becoming a fashion designer with an apartment in the Village. 

But that’s not the only potential romance that’s up in the air.  Benny (Corey Hawkins), a cab dispatcher, is in love with Nina (Leslie Grace), the daughter of his boss (Kevin Rosario), who’s sold half of his business and may have to sell the other to meet the cost of his daughter’s tuition at Stanford.  She’s home for vacation, and can’t tell her dad that she doesn’t want to go back to California for personal reasons, since he’s sacrificed so much to get her there.  And, of course, he’d have a hard time accepting Benny, a non-Latino, as a son-in-law. 

Four lovers would be more than enough major characters for most movies, but that’s only the start here.  There’s not only Kevin but Usnavi’s Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), who’s the virtual godmother to everyone.  And Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (scene-stealing Gregory Diaz IV), who works for him at the bodega and prods him to make his intentions clear to Vanessa.  And Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who’s being forced to move the salon she’s run for years (where Vanessa works) to Brooklyn, and is none too happy about it.

Add to these, among others, the piragua-selling guy (Miranda) whose snow-cone push-cart business is being threatened by Mr. Softee (Christopher Jackson) and his truck, and Graffiti Pete (Noah Catala).  Clusters of others hover in the background and occasionally take the spotlight, too.

This is an awfully large ensemble to juggle, but director Jon M. Chu, though coming from a different experience himself, does so with obvious affection and skill, and the cast respond with ebullient turns across the board, with Ramos and Merediz in particular standing out.  The picture looks great, with Nelson Coates’s production design and Mitchell Travers’ costumes—as well as the Washington Heights locations—providing colorful subjects for Alice Brooks’s lush cinematography.  Myron Kerstein’s editing keeps the multiple narrative threads running smoothly, which cannot have been an easy job, and helps to give punch to those great dance sequences.            

“In the Heights” might always be thought of as a promising precursor to “Hamilton” rather than its equal.  But this is a show that conveys the joy and warmth of family and community for everyone to savor, and while not without flaws, its charm is hard to resist.  So why try?