For most of its history, the American musical has been overwhelmingly white, with few exceptions. In the Heights stands out as a clear contrast to the traditional musical, not just because it was created by the son of Puerto Rican immigrants or because it features a storyline about a Latin American community in New York City and cultivates an energy that is uniquely Latin. It occupies a special place in American musical theater because it’s all three of those things — how rare is that? In the Heights is a vibrant, energetic celebration of the spirit of Washington Heights, a long-standing bastion of the Latin American immigrant community. It features powerhouse vocal performances and dynamic direction from Jon M. Chu, making it a full sensory experience sure to charm audiences just slowly beginning to make their way back to theaters.
It’s summer in New York City, and the folks in Washington Heights are growing restless. The neighborhood is changing, with long-time residents being priced out, businesses closing, and young people thinking about moving elsewhere to follow their dreams. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner intent on relocating to his childhood home in the Dominican Republic, is the hero of our story. But around him whirls a seemingly endless parade of friends, neighbors, and relations, all with their own lives and aspirations.
Vanessa (Melissa Barerra) is a nail technician with dreams of moving downtown and becoming a fashion designer. Nina (Leslie Grace), the smartest girl in town, has just returned from her first year at Stanford feeling so demoralized that she’s considering sticking around Washington Heights for good. Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) concerns herself with the well-being of all her surrogate grandchildren on the block. Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) tries to balance schoolwork, his part-time job at the bodega, and the added stress of worrying about his immigration status. Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) is in the process of moving her salon up to the Bronx since she can no longer afford rent in Washington Heights.
Together, these characters and many more make up the beating heart of this one single neighborhood, one that is in perpetual motion and powerfully interconnected. You know that cliche of a city or neighborhood of a city functioning almost as a character in itself? That’s sort of the position of Washington Heights here. Or rather, all of the individuals that live in this neighborhood come together to make up one central, overarching narrative that focuses less on each tangential storyline and more as a story about the fortunes and struggles of an entire immigrant community.
In the Heights is visually frenetic, and Chu takes special care to make sure it never stops moving. Its tentpole ensemble numbers pay tribute to classic Hollywood movie musicals in their scale and attention to detail. There’s always something different to look at, characters carrying on their own subplots in the background. The music is fast-paced, with lyrics frequently overlapping one another, evoking the spirit of a busy city neighborhood where everyone is doing their own thing but also hyper-involved in each other’s lives — the byproduct of spending years in a tight-knit community where the connections forged are not just friendships, but ties to the homeland.
This connective tissue that lives at the center of In the Heights is epitomized by the character of Abuela Claudia. The matriarch of her neighborhood in Washington Heights, she provides support to everyone in her community. She’s the emotional heart of In the Heights, the comforting presence that serves as a reminder of where they came from and the tremendous value of having this sort of extended family.
As the world of Washington Heights expands ever outward — folks get priced out, or sell their mom-and-pop shops to gentrifiers, or leave the neighborhood to follow their dreams — its residents nonetheless continue to revolve around Abuela Claudia like satellites. Merediz, reprising the role that she originated during the initial Broadway run of In the Heights, is utterly transcendent as Abuela Claudia, her monologue about the Latino community asserting dignity in small ways and spine-tingling performance of “Paciencia y Fe” both the stuff that Best Supporting Actress Oscar clips are made of.
In the Heights sparkles, both in its joyful, large-scale set pieces and its more intimate moments. Anthony Ramos charms as the film’s narrator and leading man with a performance that will hopefully garner him much more attention from Hollywood. In the Heights has a magically timeless sort of quality while at the same time feeling incredibly relevant and in some ways overdue. In a year that is poised to be packed full of movie musicals, In the Heights stakes out its territory early, giving audiences a fun, endearing, and poignant spectacle.