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In the Heights features a rather flat story that’s elevated by a likable cast and spirited music.

Take the “A” Train

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera
Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera

An adaptation of the Broadway musical that ran from 2008-2011 and recipient of the Tony for Best Musical, In the Heights is another project from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Pulitzer-winning mastermind behind the Hamilton phenomenon. The shows share a similarity in musical stylings; there’s more rap than traditional, classical rousing Broadway anthems and heartbreaking love songs.

The music here is good — but it’s not exactly of the “leave the theatre humming it” variety. The songs are peppy and heavily influenced by the rhythms of Miranda’s experiences living in the Heights.

“In the Heights” refers to Washington Heights, a neighborhood noted for its (relatively) naturally high elevation (around 177 feet above sea level) in a northern Manhattan area referred to as the Little Dominican Republic.

Anthony Ramos, who’s featured in the streaming production of Hamilton available on Disney+, stars as Usnavi de la Vega, a young man with big dreams and who’s romantically challenged. His name even has a cute back story: it’s a play on a U.S. Navy ship, one of the first sights his parents saw when approaching America for the very first time. Usnavi dreams of returning to his ancestral homeland in the Dominican Republic and opening up shop on the beach.

Usnavi’s love interest is Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, Vida on Starz). Vanessa also has big dreams. She wants to move down to the heart of Manhattan and become a major fashion designer. But she needs help with her credit.

More broadly, the canvas includes an elderly matriarch of a salon (Olga Merediz, who garnered a Tony nomination for her performance in the Broadway production), a second couple in the throes of nueva love and a blackout spurred on by the imposing, sweaty heat of summer in New York City.

El Almanaque

In Broadway terms, that’s all that’s necessary to put on a show. For movies, the material needs to be adapted. The best of them do something novel, as with the clever conceit surrounding Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Chicago or Tom Hopper’s filming on location and singing on-camera for Les Miserables.

Here, the possibilities are enormous, but In the Heights fulfills only some of them.

Filming on location in Washington Heights was a veritable no-brainer and that alone adds quite a bit of atmosphere and authenticity. There’s also a dose of animated flair to accompany some of the action and — at least by appearances — Usnavi has fulfilled his dreams as he recounts his tale to a clique of children on a Dominican beach.

But there isn’t an overarching build-up of the action, aside from the tension of the impending blackout (an opening title card announces the blackout is three days away). There’s a nice pool scene that doesn’t quite go grandiose enough and the most stylish and cinematically thrilling scene — involving a dance number on the side of an apartment building, with cars passing by on the street below — is great to look at but lacking the soaring punch of exuberance such a scene screams for (to that end, consider the extraordinary opening sequence in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land).

Carnaval Del Barrio

As directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), In the Heights certainly has its ambitions. While there are “only” six people credited for the film’s stunt work, there are a whopping 275 dancers whose names scroll up the screen during the end credits.

Ramos and Barrera are great; they’re multi-talented and they’re easy on the eyes. Through their characters, a worthwhile message — a theme — emerges about the challenges of working hard to make dreams happen, but to also never forget about what’s right in front of you, in your own backyard.

The occasional dash of humor punctuates the environment, but the dramatic elements aren’t given enough heft. There’s no particular “bad guy” or imposing character to create tension, not that it’s a necessity — and maybe that’s something to relish in an era of formulaic action flicks with the inevitable climactic boss battle — but there isn’t much that propels the story forward.

In the Heights, the forces of evil — such as they are — involve gentrification, the loss of community as one shop after another closes or moves out of the Heights and over to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. If anything, the “villain” of it all involves the unseen tentacles of the government and local politicians. There’s a death in the extended family of characters, but it doesn’t resonate with passion; there’s drama around green cards and citizenship, but it’s tacked on even as Usnavi packs it all up in anticipation of moving to the Dominican Republic.

While the story celebrates Latino heritage with callouts to Chita Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Rita Moreno and others, it’s missing a rallying cry of pride, at least that’s the view from outside the Heights. It seems like there should be something more to the story.

As it stands, the overall impression left by In the Heights is one of a pleasant experience, but one that doesn’t take the material to new heights. It seemingly misses its own dreams in moving from a college project to an off-Broadway production to an award-winning Broadway musical to a major movie release (one delayed by a full year because of COVID).