Synopsis: Strivers and dreamers sing and dance through Washington Heights. (Streaming on HBO Max.)
After a year of masking and social distancing caused us to “miss” last summer, In the Heights ushers in our first post-pandemic summer. The cast cavort around the city, dancing in flash mob fashion and splashing around in crowded pools. They hug and kiss too. Surreal scenes for our brave new world of (hopefully) vaccinated people.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony Award-winning musical follows residents of Washington Heights (a neighborhood in uptown Manhattan, between West 155th St. & West 181st St.) Since the 1980’s the Heights has had a vibrant community of people formerly from the Dominican Republic. Miranda composed the musical whilst still a student at Wesleyan University. His youthful exuberance is on full display in the material. Unfortunately…the music can’t compare to his masterwork, Hamilton.
Anthony Ramos brings an easy charm and sincerity to the role of Usnavi*, a young bodega worker who wants to revive his dad’s restaurant in the Dominican Republic. He’s in love with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) whose dream is to become a fashion designer. The secondary couple are Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina (Leslie Grace); he’s a dispatcher for her dad’s taxi business while she has just returned home for the summer after completing her first year at Stanford.
Usnavi seems to have a pretty sweet sitch what with his own corner store, but his dream is to leave New York for a romanticized DR. It being a musical, he spends more time singing and dancing in the street than minding his store. Not surprisingly, this is when shoplifters frequent his bodega. Usnavi’s only customers seem to be the neighborhood’s fave matriarch, Abuela Claudia (watch for Olga Merediz moving performance of “Pacienca y Fe”) and his crush, Vanessa. Usnavi’s only employee is his young teen cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). Usnavi feels responsible for Sonny since his dad is a deadbeat in the form of Marc Anthony who looks perfectly wretched. I guess he took the J Lo + A Rod engagement pretty hard.
Fans of the stage production will be quick to point out the changes from stage to screen. The movie adds a framing device wherein Usnavi sits at a beach side store telling the story of Washington Heights to several six year olds. You’d think he’d tell them fun stories about kids playing in hydrant fountains or an old bodega cat who naps on the shelves. No, he tells them about the good, hardworking people of the Heights who get screwed by the system because often things don’t work out “no matter how hard you try.” Okayyy, maybe you kids should get back to making your sandcastles. Fortunately, Usnavi’s child-unfriendly storytelling is broken up by lively dance numbers and characters singing about their dreams or suenitos/ little dreams.
Do you remember Jimmy Smits? He usually played conflicted high-priced lawyers or righteous public defenders. Once he even played a Supreme Court Justice who steps down from the bench to take on pro bono cases and play scrappy pick up basketball games with guys half his age. This time he is the father of Nina. He’s super proud of his daughter for getting into Stanford and is desperate to come up with the money for her tuition.
Meanwhile, there’s big news in the neighborhood — a winning lottery ticket ($96K) has been sold from Usnavi’s bodega. Everyone, at what seems to be the world’s largest community pool***, are buzzing about what they would do with the money as they dance in the water. Later, Usnavi and Vanessa go to a packed club and have a danceoff with other willing partners instead of admitting that they like each other.
As if there is not enough excitement, the young LMM added a blackout to the story. Why not? This adds drama and a chance to come together as a community. Before you know it, people are packing into Abuelita’s sweltering apartment, playing bingo by candlelight. Because there is nothing like packing together playing old timey games during a blackout. Mere mortals would be sitting on their stoops cursing Con Ed.** But things are different in the Heights.
When the sun comes up, we see people exhausted from the heat, lounging outside in the shade. For some reason this offends Daniela, the hair salon owner who is being pushed out of the neighborhood because of gentrification’s impact on her rent. She exhorts them to have a fiesta. After all, she declares, Puerto Rico has blackouts all the time and they party right through them. Soon everyone is raising the proverbial roof dancing and singing and dehydrating themselves under the scorching sun and merciless humidity. One character yells that: Where ever we go, we rep our people! And God forbid that anyone should say Latinx don’t know how to party. Dale!
Benny and Nina escape the fiesta-ing crowd and find a quiet place- a fire escape- to reflect on and sing about their love. Singing is not enough, there needs to be dancing! Earlier in the movie, director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) took advantage of movie magic by having computerized doodles onscreen. K, that was overwhelming, but he goes bolder by having Benny & Nina dance off the fire escape, defying gravity, gliding along the side of the building. Not as magical as the observatory dance sequence in La La Land; speaking of which…
Benny and Nina land as a couple, but I wasn’t picking up on in-love vibes from Vanessa unlike the emotion between Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). Vanessa’s like “Yeah, Usnavi I’m muy bonita, get in line with all my other admirers.”
Still, the overall impression is jubilant with singing, dancing and frolicking in the Heights. And you’ll get to see more than one dream come true.
*Usnavi’s name was inspired by the US Navy ship that his parents saw on their immigration from the Dominican Republic to New York, USA.
** ConEd is Consolidated Edison, the power company that supplies much of the electricity to NYC.
*** Highbridge Park @ Amsterdam Ave. & W. 173rd St. The pool and recreation center was built in 1936, funded by Pres. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) which provided jobs building public works.