An exuberant musical about neighborhood, family, and home.
In the Heights
“Little details that tell the world we are not invisible.” Abuela (Olga Meridez)
It would be difficult to catalogue the countless details of In the Heights, a mesmerizing cache of color, song, and dance celebrating the Latinx culture of Washington Heights in northern Manhattan at a time when the ‘hood was beginning to undergo gentrification. It’s a soft lamentation about a passing age but also an overwhelming paean to a lusty people who embody the American dream. Think of the Caribbean immigrants’ hope in Fame (1980)
Although In the Heights celebrates the little details of Latino life, each frame is larded with song and dance from every possible genre: rap and hip-hop, flamenco and mambo on 2, merengue, ballet, and Broadway ballads combine to capture the rich diversity of NYC and the sparkling artistic culture of the Latin culture, much of it coming from the Dominican Republic.
Credit vibrant and diverse choreography to Christopher Scott, s non-Latino from the Los Angeles dance scene. His best testimony to the vitality of dance and the city is at the end, a seven-minute Carnival de Barrio--a sweaty celebration of being alive.
The hero, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), in the opening tells a group of children the story of his youth and his dream to return to DR and renew his father’s once-thriving bodega. This framework serves as a history of Washington Heights and the tension between the daily struggles and the dreams of a better life, even if going back means going forward.
Producer Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) and director Jon Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) layer on the bright pastels of a vibrant NYC and set pieces evocative of Busby Berkeley (observe the pool sequence) and Fred Astaire (check out dancing on the side of a building like on the ceiling in Royal Wedding). It is a highly romanticized evocation of a challenging environment that captures its best sides in the best musical tradition.
An example of the musical’s synthesizing past with present is Abuela’s (she a grandmotherly character not really a grandma) reverie about her mother leaving Cuba. In the contemporary ballet Paciencia y Fe, she glides past dancers in white peasant blouses and Cuban straw hats merging into 40’s NYC with little hats and dry-cleaned dresses. This sequence fuses the memories of old times with the energy of the modern, just like the Heights.
For such a kinetic and sympathetic romance about a Manhattan neighborhood filled with dark-skinned Afro-Latino people, it has gained a measure of criticism over casting mostly light-skinned Latinos in its leading roles. Miranda has apologized for falling short of “trying to paint a mosaic of this community.”
All is not always sunny in the Heights either. Characters are struggling with blackouts and immigrant documentation, poverty and educational impossibilities that most of us never faced. Yet, exuberance and optimism prevail, emphasizing the challenging ambition to capturing the American dream.
In the Heights is a musical to make you forget the pandemic and to haul you out of isolation into the bliss of community.
In the Heights
Director: Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians)
Screenplay: Quiara Alegria Hudes (Vivo) and musical stage play and book, based on the musical stage play concept by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Cast: Anthony Ramos (Hamilton), Melissa Barrera (Dos Veces Tu)
Run Time: 2h 23m
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JohnDeSando62@gmail.com