Adapted by Jon M. Chu from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s hit Broadway musical, “In the Heights” tells the story of New York’s eponymous neighborhood: Washington Heights, where generations of strivers from around the world have put down roots in a simultaneously forbidding and seductive new home. As the film opens, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) has gathered a group of young children to explain what the Heights mean to his family and friends who grew up there: the energy, camaraderie, rhythmic pulse and indefatigable work ethic of a place that functioned both as a tightly knit social hub and springboard for greater things. It’s all laid out in a glorious performance of the film’s title song, a classic musical-theater place-setter that introduces the plot, characters and overarching themes of “In the Heights” within a captivating, vibrantly staged production number.
Unfolding over the course of the hottest days of a torrid Upper Manhattan summer, the story of “In the Heights” isn’t particularly new: It involves the complicated love affairs of two couples: Usnavi and Vanessa, a would-be fashion designer played with focused self-assurance by Melissa Barrera; and Benny and Nina, an off-license taxi dispatcher and a returning Stanford student, played by Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace. The nail salon where Vanessa works is being priced out of the neighborhood, with her boss, Daniela (played by the sublime Daphne Rubin-Vega), packing up for the Bronx. Meanwhile, Usnavi, who runs a corner bodega, is nursing dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, where he wants to take over his family’s beachfront bar.
Less a narrative arc than a series of eye-and-ear-catching vignettes, “In the Heights” poses predictable questions: Will Usnavi summon the courage to ask Vanessa out on a date? Will Vanessa get enough money together to get her own apartment in the Village? Will Nina summon the courage to tell her proud father, Kevin (Jimmy Smits), that she doesn’t want to return to Stanford? Will Usnavi’s beloved adopted grandmother, Abuela Claudia, buy into his plans? Perhaps most pointedly, will the audience be able to un-hear the beats, songwriting conceits and lyrical tics that Miranda clearly improved on to create his subsequent — and exponentially finer — musical, “Hamilton”?
Probably not — and that would be true even if Chu hadn’t thrown in a clever needle-drop from “Hamilton” while a character is stuck on hold. While “In the Heights” isn’t nearly as strong a show as its more famous cousin — it’s repetitive, plotty, over-insistent and often gratingly melodramatic — it overcomes those minor flaws with sheer force of gumption and unflagging good cheer. Chu has assembled a powerhouse ensemble of veterans — including Smits, Rubin-Vega and the great Olga Merediz in an emotionally shattering set piece — as well as promising newcomers. Although “Hamilton” fans won’t be surprised by Ramos’s natural charisma, this is a breakout moment for the gifted actor; both Barrera and Grace acquit their roles with a combination of starry-eyed idealism and grounded credibility. They also serve as welcome relief from female characters who too often hew to the “saucy Latina spitfire” trope. (Miranda, who played Usnavi in the stage production, appears in a cameo as a shaved-ice salesman in scenes that, for their understandable sentimental value, begin to feel like filler.)
As appealing as the individual cast members are, the real stars of “In the Heights” are the production numbers, all-out extravaganzas of singing, dancing, color and contagious joie de vivre that Chu perfected as far back as “Step Up 3-D.” That sensational opening sequence turns out to be a tantalizing amuse-bouche in advance of an increasingly impressive feast for the eyes and ears: From a spectacular Busby Berkeley-inspired swimming pool number to a sultry nightclub scene and courtyard dance-off worthy of less bellicose Sharks and Jets, “In the Heights” pays homage to its movie-musical forebears through a new lens. Melding rap, salsa, merengue and Latin pop, and name-checking the specific countries and cultures too often flattened out with the over-generalizing term “Latino,” the big-screen version of “In the Heights” preserves what might be Miranda’s most revolutionary accomplishment: reframing American musical theater within an entirely familiar — yet specific, authentic and invigorating — vernacular.
“In the Heights” drags just a little bit, a limitation Chu seems to be aware of when he seeks to liven things up by way of on-screen animations and snazzy visual effects. But for the most part, this time-honored fable of restless ambition and romance — embodied by an amazingly athletic and versatile group of actors — does precisely what it feels designed to do: Welcome us back to a uniquely American summer, with all the heat, intensity and exhilaration the season promises at its very best.
PG-13. At area theaters; also available on HBO Max. Contains some strong language and suggestive references. 143 minutes.