For the second time in just one year, a musical by Lin Manuel Miranda has provided me with the sole motivation to sign up for an entire streaming service. Last July, it was Hamilton and Disney Plus; this time, it was In The Heights and HBOMax.
The stage version of this work by Miranda first premiered on Broadway in 2008, a production I was lucky enough to have the chance to attend myself. The film incarnation debuted on June 10, its original 2020 release having been delayed a year due to the pandemic.
Both the nostalgia factor of revisiting a musical that I’ve long loved, and the fact that I have experienced the adaptation of this feel-good show – just as our societal year-plus of viral crisis was coming to its end inevitably colored my experience of it. That is to say, I went in far more eager to enjoy than to appraise.
There was certainly plenty of enjoyment to be found, starting with the opening number “In The Heights,” which introduces the show’s titular Washington Heights setting and its scrappy cast of characters. Protagonist Usnavi, played with an understated charm by Anthony Ramos, runs the neighborhood bodega with his teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV).
Customers that stroll through include Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the woman who is not really his abuela but “practically raised him” after his parents’ death; Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), his crush, a beautiful artist seeking an escape from the Heights and her stifling job as a hair stylist; Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who owns the local taxi cab company and is awaiting his daughter Nina’s (Leslie Grace) imminent summer return from Stanford; and Benny (Corey Hawkins), Nina’s charismatic ex-boyfriend and Kevin’s trusty dispatcher.
It is Nina’s arrival that kicks off what an admittedly slim plot there is to be found in In the Heights, as conflict between her and Kevin rears its head when she informs him that she does not intend to re-enroll in college. The story also follows brewing romances between Nina and Benny and between Vanessa and Usnavi, a fateful lottery ticket, and Usnavi’s quest to return to his homeland, the Dominican Republic.
A mid-movie blackout leads to one of the story’s more somber moments, but it also catalyzes a community celebration in “Carnaval De Barrio,” a rousing anthem led by Daphne Rubin-Vega’s Daniela that pays tribute to the characters’ Latin heritage and their cultural history of overcoming adversity.
The energy of celebration is in fact one that runs rampant throughout the film, especially in its musical numbers: in “96,000,” which features choreography that overtakes a swimming pool; in the salon ladies’ cheery, gossipy “No Me Diga”; and in “When the Sun Goes Down,” where a stunning visual flourish means that two characters’ love lets them defy gravity.
Then there was “Piragua,” a light ditty that featured Miranda himself as the intrepid peddler of the shaved-ice treats and a mightily amusing cameo by Hamilton’s Christopher Jackson as his ice-cream truck driving rival.
Despite the infectious enthusiasm of the whole endeavor, the mosaic approach that worked onstage felt a little more narratively formless in film. To add, the matter wasn’t helped by some confusing changes from In The Heights’ Broadway version and the removal of one of its weightier subplots.