Washington Heights is an actual Manhattan neighborhood but the movie "In the Heights" is not set in the real world. It takes place in the world of musicals, which is full of magic and possibilities.
Jon M. Chu, who directed "Crazy Rich Asians" and a couple of the "Step Up" dance movies, is faithful to the Tony-winning Broadway show by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes that was produced at the Ordway in 2017. But he improves it by shifting from a naturalistic look at life in New York to storytelling that's not realistic at all.
Everyone in the neighborhood is a backup dancer, for instance. The past often intrudes on the present, as when elderly Claudia takes center stage and the people of her Cuban childhood suddenly appear, singing and dancing along with her. It's almost as if the "In the Heights" characters live in a movie, and alert viewers will spot borrowings from "It's a Wonderful Life," "Royal Wedding," "West Side Story" (which takes place just south of Washington Heights) and even "Hamilton." Written by "Heights" songwriter Miranda, that megahit gets a callback here in a bit of on-hold music that fans will recognize as "You'll Be Back."
"In the Heights" is about dreams. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, enormously likable) runs a bodega but plans to open a beachfront bar in the Dominican Republic, where his people are from. Manicurist Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) dreams of a career in fashion. Nina (Leslie Grace) wants to be the first in her Nuyorican family to graduate from college while her father (Jimmy Smits) envisions a better life for her. Claudia (Olga Merediz) wants to help make all of those things happen and young Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) has longings he keeps to himself.
Miranda did a better job of keeping track of the huge ensemble in his next show, "Hamilton," but the movie and stage "Heights" are ungainly, with a story arc more like a series of story waves that crest too early.
The flip side is that Chu makes every minute of "In the Heights" overflow with life, energy and fun. That's true from an opening song that introduces all the characters to a post-credits closer with Miranda and his "Hamilton" co-star Chris Jackson. There's also a playful tune sung in a beauty shop where even a wall of wigs busts a move. And a number where dancing lovers defy gravity — as, in a way, all lovers do.
Some musicals are sheepish about admitting they are musicals, hiding songs in performance scenes ("Dreamgirls") or turning them into internal monologues ("Yentl"). But "In the Heights" takes the "Grease"/"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" approach of saying, essentially, "We assume you love this goofy stuff, too, so we are going to lean into it."
The nonstop joy (there isn't even a villain, unless you count the gentrification that threatens the neighborhood) is balanced by introspective moments that deepen our connection to the characters. Twice, Nina pauses to say, "Let me just listen to my block," with the resulting birdsong, laughing of children and bouncing of balls helping us appreciate why she is reluctant to leave Washington Heights. Those are among many scenes where we see what Claudia means when she explains that she cherishes napkins embroidered by her mother because they're among the "little details that tell the world we are not invisible."
Visibility is a strength of "In the Heights," which is diverse in nearly every way you can think of: ethnicity, body type, gender, class. All the people are working together to create an idealized future that, to paraphrase Smits' character, some of us can't even dream of.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367