Review: 'In the Heights' is an essential, joyous celebration of life

(Left Center-Right Center) ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

In the Heights
4.5 out of 5 Stars
Jon M. Chu
Writer: Quiara Alegría Hudes
Starring: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Genre: Drama, Musical
Rated: Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive references

SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) – Synopsis: Usnavi de la Vega runs a bodega but his dream is to return to the Dominican Republic where he will buy the bar his father ran when Usnavi was a child. Vanessa works at a salon but wants to be a fashion designer. Nina is her father’s pride but her struggles with her first year at university has her rethinking her future. All three call Washington Heights their home.

Review: After more than a decade of social and economic speedbumps, “In the Heights” is finally making its way into theaters (and HBO Max). Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda the musical was originally performed in Waterford, Connecticut in 2005 before moving off-Broadway in 2007. In 2008, it shifted over to Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre where it ran until 2011. It won a Tony Award for Best Musical. It was a success on any scale. Well, any scale that doesn’t include Miranda’s next project, “Hamilton.”

I don’t blindly love musicals. In fact, there are many where I find the emphasis of spectacle over substance to be simply unbearable. I can’t think of anything worse than sitting through a performance of “Miss Saigon” or having to watch Tom Hooper’s cinematic disaster known as “Cats.” That’s hyperbole, of course, but you get the picture.

So, when I tell you that I love “In the Heights” with a sense of reckless abandon, know it’s not out of a sense of devotion to musical theater. “Hamilton” is brilliant. “In the Heights” is more important, more relevant as it explores the American experience through the eyes of a Dominican neighborhood in New York City’s Washington Heights. It is a story about dreaming beyond your means, daring to want more than what you currently have and finding the determination to achieve them. This isn’t a story about getting something for free. Everything has a cost and the potential to be a disaster. Then again, every disaster has the potential to be a block party. Every cluttered bodega can be a bar cooled by a seaside breeze.

Anthony Ramos stars as Usnavi, a hardworking dreamer who looks to return to the Dominican Republic to restore his late father’s bar. Melissa Barrera is Vanessa, the neighborhood beauty, who aspires to be a fashion designer. Corey Hawkins is the unassuming Benny who crushes hard on Leslie Grace’s Nina Rosario the incredibly intelligent young woman who feels crushed by the weight of the neighborhood’s expectations. Though built on familiar tropes, “In the Heights” excels by infusing its story with a distinctive Dominican flair. It is a world that I had yet to explore. A place that reveals itself as something beautiful, vibrant, distinct, and precious.

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“In the Heights’ wasn’t intended to be a post-pandemic tonic but its celebration of hope, diversity, and dreams is exactly that. Under the direction of Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) the film dazzles with massive production numbers without sacrificing its street-level soul. The whole film screams, "Go ahead, chase those dreams."

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