Movie review: In The Heights

Washington Heights, NYC

In The Heights
(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.

My Father’s Day present was my wife taking herself, our daughter, and me to the new movie In The Heights. After church, someone had noted that it’s airing on HBO Max or whatever. Goodness, no thanks. I’ve seen too many films on the small screen in the past year.

We walked to the Madison Theatre. Not only is it our neighborhood cinema, but it had been closed for months because of the pandemic, though it did offer takeout food.

Will this be a private showing? We were the first three people in the theater. There was a party of four that came in during the many previews for films not in my queue, mong them Quiet Place II, F9, the Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, and the new Top Gun.

We all enjoyed the story of a bodega owner named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos from Hamilton) telling a tale about the folks in his Washington Heights, New York City neighborhood. Nina (Leslie Grace) is home for the summer after her first year at Stanford, the pride of the neighborhood, especially her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits). His cab company employes her old beau Benny (Corey Hawkins).

Usnavi is assisted at the store by his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV). The proprietor has ad a long-standing, but unstated crush on the artistic Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). Meanwhile, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) is a cross between the mayor of Washington Heights and everyone’s mother.

There are lots of good tunes, most largely unfamiliar to me; the Abuela song was quite touching. Some impressive dancing is taking place, especially 96,000, in and around a swimming pool, which had to be a technological challenge

I’ll allow that at 2:24, it’s about 15 minutes too long, even with some of the songs from the  Tony-winning score left out. This is a regular sin of musicals, in my experience. Still, I was never bored.


This begs the question, then. Why has In The Heights been a commercial failure thus far? After a mediocre opening, the box office dropped some 67% in its second weekend. The reviews were good; on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics were 96% positive and were 95% of audiences.

Is it because some of it was in Spanish? I didn’t find it a barrier myself since most of the film is in English. But potential viewers may have worried nonetheless. Did the color controversy, mentioned by Ken Levine in paragraph seven, have anything to keep people not only home but off HBO Max? I don’t know.

I’m recommending In The Heights, in the theater, if you can see it there. Lots of funny Hamilton touches. Phone music featuring You’ll Be Back. Christopher Jackson (George Washington) as the ice cream truck driver competing with the ices seller (Lin-Manuel Miranda, who of course, co-wrote In the Heights and Hamilton.) And wait until the very end.

Alexander Hamilton: “Just you wait”

the world turned upside-down

hamilton logoBy our calculations, my family has listened to the original cast recording of the musical Hamilton a minimum of 250 times in the past four years. This is not an exaggeration, and for my daughter, who had it on REPEAT as she went to bed, probably a vast undercount.

She knew/knows all the actors in the original cast and which roles they played. She has books, pictures, calendars about that production. For her part, my wife has finished the lengthy Ron Chernow book that Lin-Manuel Miranda read which eventually led to the musical.

We’ve watched Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance at the White House Poetry Jam Writer on May 12, 2009, accompanied by Alex Lacamoire. This was Six Years Before the Play Hit the Broadway Stage.

We’ve seen, more than once, Hamilton’s America which debuted on October 21, 2016 as part of PBS’s “Great Performances”. We viewed the Tonys when the pop culture Broadway phenomenon won 11 of the 16 Tony Awards® for which it was nominated.

The creators received a special award at the Kennedy Center Honors. We’ve listened to the Weird Al parody.

And around Albany, NY, in particular, there’s the Hamilton Effect, with several sites of significance to him and especially the Schuylers, the family he married into. The Albany Institute of History and Art has an exhibit The Schuyler Sisters and Their Circle right now.

By coincidence, the Park Playhouse in Albany staged a production of In the Heights in July, Miranda’s FIRST Tony-winning musical. My wife and I enjoyed the show, puzzled by a local critic’s dis of the lead’s performance.

When we knew that Hamilton was coming to Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, we bought three tickets each for the six shows in the package, back in May of 2018. (We had purchased two season ticket the year before, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch.) We weren’t going to throw away our shot at seeing the show. The wait seemed interminable.

Finally, it’s H-day, August 18. My wife switches out her purse because large, non-clear ones are banned.

For a piece I already know so well, will it be as enjoyable as I anticipated? The answer is an enthusiastic YES. This in spite of the fact that they used a standby, Wonza Johnson, usually played by Edred Utomi, for the title role.

My buddy Amy Biancolli wrote on Facebook: “It’s more than a musical. It’s an opera and a ballet and a discourse on grief and a thrilling, epic poem on the arc and nature of history. And it’s hilarious. And mesmerizing. And infectious. And moving.”

I did learn there are a few spoken-word bits in the story. My wife picked up on some plot points. I don’t think I cried more than three or four times. I’m convinced that understanding the libretto beforehand enhances the appreciation of the story. Even before the performance, Hamilton has been firmly lodged in my Top Five favorite musicals, along with West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof.

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