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Finding musical Heights

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

Tradition and updated sensibilities blend for the screen adaptation of the Broadway hit In the Heights. The movie features the old-fashioned exuberance generated by energetic dance on a big screen. It gets back to a basic concept featured in that classic cinematic musical The Wizard of Oz, though without fantasy. Oh wait, all musicals contain fantasy — given that few of us interrupt our dialogue by breaking into song.

Fans of the genre who enjoy such a flight of fancy can find much to appreciate with In the Heights. The movie’s updated sensibilities come from a team that includes Lin-Manuel Miranda, who revitalized the Broadway musical with his take on Hamilton. Before retooling history, Miranda broke into stage with his acting and musical score for a nostalgic revisiting of the neighborhood where he grew up, Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Lacking famous white stars and using a hip-hop style of song, the play broke tradition by winning a Tony as best musical.

Cinematic tradition via West Side Story would have jettisoned the lesser-known Broadway performers for movie stars plus dubbed voices and put make up on white faces. But the forces behind In the Heights knew better than that. Rather than play the teenage lead as he did on Broadway, Miranda slides into a cameo that lets him sing a single song. He turns the bulk of screen time over to the actor who played his son in Hamilton, Anthony Ramos.

Ramos makes it look easy to handle the Miranda style in his starring role as a guy who wants to get back to his original home in the Dominican Republic. That desire pretty much covers plot. The rest of the story paints portraits of distinct people through song, dance and a bit of dialogue. Director Jon Chu of Crazy Rich Asians fame keeps a light touch, reaching happy heights.

The movie plays in theaters, the best way to appreciate its elaborate musical numbers, like a swimming sequence featuring 500 extras. It also streams on HBO Max.

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