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June 20, 2021

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The tight bonds of community, family and home

“I am Usnavi and you prob’ly never heard my name,” declared bodega owner Usnavi at the start of “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s contagiously joyous ode to his beloved Washington Heights neighborhood. “Reports of my fame are greatly exaggerated.”

Even in the annals of musical theater, by nature filled with Cinderella stories, “In the Heights” has an amazing backstory. It began two decades ago when a college student at Wesleyan had extra time on his hands — his girlfriend was studying abroad — so he started to write a show. A show that represented the Latino immigrant experience as he, son of Puerto Rican parents, saw it. A show that melded the things he loved: hip-hop, Latin music and dance, rap, and of course musical theater.

The kid was Miranda, and “In the Heights” eventually made it all the way to the Tony podium, winning best musical. Of course, Miranda’s own story was just beginning. “Hamilton,” his genre-bending phenomenon, was years away.

Comparisons between the two are inevitable, but they’re different animals. “In the Heights,” directed with unabashed exuberance by Jon M. Chu from a screenplay by Quiara Alegria Hudes, doesn’t seek to reframe American history; it uses Miranda’s rapid-fire wordplay and hybrid of traditional and contemporary styles to tell the story of one community — one intersection, even — through universal experiences, like encroaching gentrification. This updated version also touches on the Dreamers, and a golf reference to Donald Trump has been switched to Tiger Woods. But its main thrust is still the bonds of community, family and home. (If you look closely during one song, you can even spot Miranda’s parents.)

“In the Heights” also benefits from an exquisite sense of timing — cultural timing. The release was postponed a year; theaters are now open. “Lights up,” begins the infectious opening number, and those words are perfect: Lights up on Washington Heights, yes, but also on a reawakened New York, where many are tentatively returning to pre-pandemic rhythms after a miserable year, eager for shared experience. “In the Heights” is a work that reads the room: a film without an ounce of cynicism, that wears its big heart proudly on its sleeve and dares you not to join in.

Two lovers, suddenly dancing up the side of an apartment building? A Busby Berkeley-style dance number in a city pool? Yup. And yup.

Usnavi, we learn, aches to return to the Dominican Republic, where his late father owned a beach kiosk.

Miranda played Usnavi onstage but has handed off to Anthony Ramos, a “Hamilton” alum (that’s him with the “10-dollar founding father” line) who eases into leading-man duties with warmth, humor and charm.

Although the film begins with a framing device of Usnavi recounting history to children on a beach — a choice that comes off as overly sentimental — it kicks into gear in that opening number, in which Usnavi introduces all the important characters.

There’s Abuela Claudia, de facto matriarch of the community (Olga Merediz, a Broadway alum, in a deeply poignant performance). There’s Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) — wiry, fast-talking, funny. There’s Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), owner of a local salon threatened by gentrification.

There’s Benny (Corey Hawkins, terrific), who works at the taxi service owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits). There’s Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), for whom Usnavi secretly pines — she works at the salon but dreams of being a fashion designer.

Young Sonny is a Dreamer, and his future in the US is a risk. This side plot seems rather rushed, and a street protest scene seems an afterthought.


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