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The Crack Magazine

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In the Heights

Director: John M. Chu

Stars: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Olga Merediz

This long-gestating adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s upper Manhattan-set musical eschews some of the knottier subject matter and ambiguity of the original stage version, but more or less makes up for it with block-rocking gusto and summery joie de vie.

A slightly syrupy framing device, added for the film, has young Dominican-American Usnavi (a charismatic turn from Ramos) relating the story of his Upper Manhattan neighbourhood and the lives and loves of its diverse Latino locals to a bunch of cute kids on some unnamed idyllic sandy beach.

Cut to the main story where Usnavi is running a convenience store in Washington Heights assisted by his younger cousin Sonny (the excellent Diaz IV). Usnavi dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic and opening a bar.  Also in the mix is the local abuela Claudia (Merediz), an elderly single woman and adoptive matriarch to the disparate community; taxi service owner Kevin Rosario (Smits) who is struggling financially to put his daughter Nina (Grace) through snooty Ivy League college; Nina’s ex-boyfriend Benny (Hawkins) who let her go so she could move up in the world; and wannabe fashion designer Vanessa (Barrera) who Usnavi has a crush on.

Despite the talk of sueñitos (little dreams) in the framing sequences, the script is refreshingly ambivalent on the American Dream, with the locals weary of the encroaching gentrification of the area and their parents’ hard work being undone, although there’s nothing as spicily satirical as Sondheim’s ‘America’ from ‘West Side Story’ here. The plotting often seems secondary and there’s never really a feeling of too much being at stake that a little hoofing won’t fix, but the exuberantly-staged numbers, featuring a potent mix of salsa, merengue, rap and reggaeton, infectiously convey the rhythm of the melting pot neighbourhood.

The two musical standouts are ‘96,000’, a public pool-set extravaganza, which plays like barrio Busby Berkeley meets Esther Williams, where the characters speculate on what they would do if they won the titular amount in the lottery; and ‘When the Sun Goes Down’ a wondrous gravity-defying and vertiginous duet on the side of building between old sweethearts Nina and Benny.

There’s some cute musical in-jokes here too: a blast of Duke Ellington sounds out when a character mentions the A Train, and a frustrated caller placed on hold is tormented by an easy listening version of a ‘Hamilton’ tune.

Multi-hyphenate Miranda, who played Usnavi in the original show, cameos as the irrepressible local ice drinks cart merchant.

In the Heights is released on 18th June

David Willoughby

Follow David on @DWill_Crackfilm  

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