CALLERI: “In The Heights” proves they do make them like they used to

Anthony Ramos and Leslie Grace enjoy the beat in the musical “In The Heights.” (Macall Polay for Warner Bros. Pictures)

In the great movie musical “Singin’ In The Rain,” Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood, a silent film star facing the arrival of sound, enters a fantastical saloon where everyone will end up singing and dancing. He’s bursting with energy because as he joyfully sings, he’s “gotta dance.”

That same spirit holds true for the characters in “In The Heights,” the new old-style musical created by a then-precocious composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (later of “Hamilton” renown”) when he was in his early 20s. After making some noise off-Broadway in 2007, “In The Heights” moved to Broadway, opening on March 9, 2008. It settled in for a three-year run, which resulted in a Tony Award for best musical. I saw Miranda in the show in 2008.

He played Usnavi de la Vega, the owner of a small bodega in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. The George Washington Bridge, the 168th Street subway station, and Highbridge Park are three iconic symbols of the area. Broadway flows through the district and Amsterdam Avenue has its own highlights.

“In The Heights” the movie begins with a Manhattan neighborhood astir. Dawn is breaking. Families and friends begin their day. Shops open. People rush about. The summer weather is sweltering. July 4th is coming. A fellow sells colorful syrup-flavored frozen ices called piragua (it’s Miranda in a small role doing what he does best – spreading joy). Some folks work at home or in other people’s homes. Some head for offices. The nearby park’s swimming pool beckons the kids.

All of this is preamble to a musical number that sets the stage for what will be 143-minutes of eye-catching entertainment. Director Jon M. Chu (the utterly satisfying cinematic gumdrop “Crazy Rich Asians” was his gift to movie lovers) and choreographer Christopher Scott have devised a street ballet that encompasses the joys and occasional tribulations of living in the heights. The screenwriter, Quiara Alegria Hudes, also wrote the show’s original book.

What we are watching is a collection of stories rooted in the lives of the neighborhood’s residents. On its surface, the tales being told may seem dramatically thin; however, because they are told with strong, often overwhelmingly beautiful acting, and because these stories come from the heart, we believe in the myriad characters and are ready to follow them.

This is not a film filled with grand proclamations or portentous events. Rather, it’s a movie about the little pieces of hope, fear, and satisfaction that make up the human condition. You know, life. The daily choices, the random encounters, the moments of pleasure, the hints of disappointment that are the fabric of humanity.

There’s no question that Washington Heights is the classic, close-knit melting pot that is sometimes sneered at, but which is inevitable for a society that needs to click on all cylinders, a society that dreams big.

In this neighborhood, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans have found a home. The movie celebrates the fact that they love this home of theirs and want it to continue to be a welcoming source of comfort and inspiration.

The story chronicled in the ever-present songs and dance sequences revolves around Usnavi’s dream to move back to the Dominican Republic to reclaim his family’s roots and business venture. He’s played by Anthony Ramos with an acting, singing, and dancing feast worthy of an Academy Award nomination.

There’s also Nina (played to perfection by Leslie Grace) a college freshman whose intelligence and talent is off-the-charts, which is why she ended up on the west coast at the intellectual citadel of Stanford University.

Unfortunately, she wants to quit because after a year of school she believes she doesn’t belong there. This is not because she doesn’t, but because she’s been made to feel this way by classmates. Her alienation and loneliness rises out of the fact that she misses her community, as well as the inspiration of her businessman father (a wonderful Jimmy Smits).

Nina has a lovely moment with “Abuela" Claudia (a heartwarming Olga Merediz), who embodies the spirit of Washington Heights. She’s like a grandmother to all the children she’s seen grow up. Her wisdom touches everyone’s lives. Her words about dignity are truth wrapped in power. Her tenderness reaches out into the audience.

And, as a tantalizing morsel, overriding the urban adventures of the characters, is the news that someone is holding a winning $96,000 lottery ticket. Through it all, the wonderful cast, which includes Corey Hawkins, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Marc Anthony invigorates this magical entertainment with their talent. Delicate moments of romance feel majestic.

“In The Heights” tells its story without anger. Of course there are problems, but the complex Latino characters we meet confront these problems with a determination that speaks to their inner strengths.

The glorious movie is like a colorful pinwheel in the wind, an uplifting hypnotic swirl of salsa, Latin pop, hip-hop, and other musical forms. A Busby Berkeley style production number at the pool is movie magic at its most whimsical and energetic.

“In The Heights” is now on movie theater screens, as well as on HBO Max for a few weeks. If it’s your desire to leave the house for some toe-tapping entertainment in the dark, you can’t go wrong seeing this heaping helping of good old-fashioned razzle-dazzle.

“In The Heights” has cheerful movie theater satisfaction written all over it.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com

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