In the Heights ★★★
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"Heights" is no "Hamilton"
Anthony Ramos’s breakout as leading man Usnavi—lover, dreamer, entrepreneur, surrogate father, dancer, singer—is an electric performance in the team effort that produced the first post-lockdown blockbuster musical, “In the Heights.” If the production is less than fully satisfying—not-so-novel, actually—it may be the result of creativity by group. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who brought us the shockingly fresh and entertaining “Hamilton,” is part of that group, which includes director Jon M. Chu of “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018). And, though he is solely responsible for the lyrics and music, the “Hamilton” star shares writing credits with Quiara Alegria Hudes. Too many cooks?
If the production is less than fully satisfying, it may be the result of creativity by group.
Above, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera)
in one of the many large song and dance numbers.
The story arc is strong, and yet derivative and lacking in timeliness: immigrant lovers must decide whether to go or stay in their cultures (a dilemma explored in “American Graffiti”  and in Richard Rodriguez’s 1982 best-selling book, “Hunger of Memory”), whether to go or stay together as couples, asking where and what is home? The Dominican-dominated Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights is at least a temporary home for most of the major players who contemplate life elsewhere. Usnavi’s love interest is the gorgeous Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a manicurist with dreams of renting an apartment downtown and designing her own fashion line. Nina (Leslie Grace, in her first major role after several music video shorts) is another character with doubts about her place, as she returns to the Heights disillusioned by the isolation she felt in her first year at Stanford (the student body is 11% Latino at the time of this writing). Her boyfriend, Benny (Corey Hawkins, one of the more experienced TV and movie actors in the cast), is a car dispatcher who agonizes over Nina’s ambitions versus his desire for her. The current hot political issues of gentrification and “Dreamers” are raised briefly, but not explored.
The cast is rounded out with three excellent, secondary portrayals: Abuela Claudia, the community’s grandmother, (Olga Merediz, the veteran actress who developed the role on Broadway); Sonny, Usnavi’s helper and surrogate son (a playful and engaging Gregory Diaz IV), and Nina’s father, Kevin (a low-affect, restrained Jimmy Smits, of TV’s “NYPD Blue”). Flashy women from the local salon (led by Daniela [Daphne Rubin-Vega]) function as a Greek chorus. Look for Miranda in a minor role.
No meaningful conflicts...to enrich and complicate the plot.
Despite the multiplicity of faces and bodies onscreen, the narrative holds together. But the characters, aside from Usnavi, are too thinly drawn, and their stories lack depth. No meaningful conflicts, as there were in “West Side Story” (film, 1961) or as far back as “Oklahoma” (film, 1955), erupt within the community; no Jets/Sharks or farmers/cowboys to enrich and complicate the plot. Even in the singing and dancing number “Carnaval del Barrio,” where flags (“banderas”) of different Latin countries are raised and praised, it’s all one big happy family.
The film has been widely criticized for “colorism”—specifically, for the failure to cast more dark-skinned Latinos...and for the failure to represent the population of Washington Heights.
Left, Benny (Corey Hawkins), one of the few dark-skinned cast members, and Nina (Leslie Grace): should she stay or go?
A light-skinned family, that is. The film has been widely criticized for “colorism”—specifically, for the failure to cast more dark-skinned Latinos not only for the major roles (the male lead is light-skinned, and freckled), and for the “cast-of-thousands” dance numbers as well—and for the failure to represent the population of Washington Heights, which is predominately Afro-Latino. Director Chu has defended the casting, noting that they “tried to get the people who were best for those roles,” and Miranda issued an early apology for falling short “in trying to paint a mosaic of this community.” Others have argued that the film should be understood as a fantasy, rather than an attempt to accurately characterize the ethnic and racial makeup of the neighborhood. “That argument assumes that Black Latinos do not belong in these imagined worlds anyway,” counters Isabelia Herrera in a probing roundtable on the colorism issue by 5 “New York Times” journalists, writing under the print-edition headline, “The Pain of Being Erased.”
“In the Heights” has won acclaim for its lavish song and dance numbers. “96,000” (the name comes from the winning amount on a lottery ticket), features a cast of 500 and was filmed in a pool, with overhead shots reminiscent of the geometry of Busby Berkeley’s 1930s’ extravaganzas. In “When the Sun Goes Down,” Nina and Benny dance up and down the vertical walls of a tenement, echoing Fred Astaire frolicking on the ceiling in 1951’s “Royal Wedding.” It’s these unusual set-ups and also the energy and over-the-top physicality of the dancers that set this musical apart. The club scene, especially, features reality-defying choreography.
Right, a Busby Berkeley-like dance
scene, featuring a cast of 500.
Chu and Miranda chose to include a wide variety of music and dance forms (not enough Dominican ones, according to some critics), while featuring hip hop and salsa. The result is exhilarating, to be sure, underscoring the prominent, dynamic role of music and dance in these immigrant cultures and communities. From another perspective, the film might seem to offer excess and acrobatics for their own sake, making Bollywood and “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) appear as tame as an Arthur Murray Dance Studio. In this view, a sense of a Dominican Republic community has been subverted to showy extravagance; more becomes less.
Plain stories and two-dimensional characters are common to musicals, but one expects the uncommon, creative mind behind “Hamilton” to go farther. “In the Heights”—winner of four Tonys, including Best Musical—in fact came to Broadway 7 years before the more sophisticated and more daring production of the two (and was first written more than 20 years ago when the playwright was in college). In the interlude, Miranda learned a lot—though perhaps not enough about casting.
Director: Jon M. Chu
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Language: English, Spanish, the latter with some subtitles
Runtime: 143 minutes