(KGET) — The biggest problem that comes with transforming a stage production into a theatrical release is that the sense of intimacy that’s so important in theatre can be lost. Such a loss would have been devastating for the big-screen adaptation of the Tony-winning Lin Manuel Miranda offering, “In the Heights.”
Strength in this show comes from how important family, friends, culture and community are to those who live in the New York area of Washington Heights. The influence of the Latin community from food to music gives the area a distinct personality that came through with a driving beat in the stage show.
Director Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) could have opted for the same approach as used when making the on-screen version of “Hamilton.” That Miranda production was shot on stage to save the integrity of the original show.
Chu opted to take “In the Heights” to new heights. He has blown away the confines of the stage to fill city streets with music, story and people. His staging of massive musical numbers and the use of unorthodox camera work and graphics makes “In the Heights” so powerful you can almost smell the mofongo cooking.
“In the Heights” unfolds just outside of the 181st Street subway stop where the lives of all of the residents are blended so tightly together they seem to breathe in harmony. The focal point is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who runs the local bodega. From that hub, the world of the “Heights” spreads to the local beauty shop – where the owners are being forced to move because of changes in the neighborhood – to a local car service. These locations are just the backdrop for the stores of dreams chased, dreams obtained and dreams lost.
The majority of the stories unfold through song and dance. Miranda’s musical numbers range from the whimsical to the poignant. All of his music is presented with great power whether it is just replicating the musical heartbeat of the community or talking about the frustrating feeling of having no power.
All this gets elevated by the choreography of Christopher Scott who previously teamed with Chu on the award-winning “The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers.” The energy he gets from his dancers in the dance club sequence is infectious. And, the staging of a musical number in a massive swimming pool is both a nod to classic Hollywood musicals and a salute to modern dance.
One of the best parts is that while there obviously are some very talented dancers in the group, Scott and Chu have filled the club, pool and streets with people who look like they live in the neighborhood. That helps create the feeling this is not just a film stage production but the capturing of a bit of real life.
At the same time that Chu has taken the story to such wide open areas, the director maintains the intimacy that made the stage show work. That’s accomplished through the talented cast anchored by an enthusiastic and energetic performance by Ramos as Usnavi.
His portrayal of the shop owner who dreams of returning to the “best days of my life” when living in the Dominican Republic coupled with his unrequited love for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera Martinez) should earn him some attention when Oscar nominations are pondered.
Just like the film deals so much with how important it is for a community to come together, Chu has gotten that same unity from his cast. Every actor – whether it be someone as recognizable as Jimmy Smits or a background dancer – is a perfect fit. That means no matter who is in a scene, the quality never lags.
The only slight blemish is the use of a storytelling gimmick that runs through the film. It does more to stall the energetic flow than serve the story.
“In the Heights” is now in theaters and a great production to see on a big screen. But, it also will be available on HBO Max for 31 days following its theatrical release. No matter the format, “In the Heights” is a magical experience that takes the best of theater and magnifies it through the lens of cinema.
“In the Heights”
3 1/2 stars
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jimmy Smits.
Director: Jon M. Chu
Rated: PG-13 for suggestive references, language
Running time: 141 minutes.