Latin-American impresario who stormed Broadway and the West End has a film that sings from the same tune sheet…gloriously!
By Suman Bhuchar
“I HAVE my stories that I carry around like luggage, and I want to put those into the world”, actor, writer, singer, Lin-Manuel Miranda told The Telegraph newspaper in October 2020.
His ambition to tell the story of the Latino-American migrant community experience through his musical drama, ‘In the Heights’ is to be applauded.
The story centres on a young man, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who runs a bodega (corner shop) in Washington Heights (where Miranda grew up in New York), and dreams of returning back to the Dominican Republic as that’s his memory of the best days of his life.
Through his eyes, we are introduced to many characters who populate the neighbourhood, during the first opening hip hop song number, ‘In the Heights’.
It’s a rich patina of the Latin American community ranging from Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), a Cuban matriarch; Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), and Carla (Stephanie Beatriz), the Beauty and Hair salon owners; Kevin (Jimmy Smits), who runs the cab company and is Nina’s father as well as his young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV).
Miranda also makes a cameo appearance as a guy who makes ‘piragua’ (ice lollies made by shaving ice and adding flavours) but he can’t compete with Mr Softee, yes the ice cream van man.
The lyrics, also by Miranda, and the songs serve as part of the narrative or reveal the innermost feelings of the characters – just as in Bollywood!
Directed by John M Chu (of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’) the screen is busy with people and the opening number is great to watch, with fabulous choreography, also by Chu, (we assume) as there is no separate credit.
This film is an adaptation of a very successful Broadway musical and to be able to see it in a cinema is a joy.
Both the film and the stage musical are written by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The musical released in 2005 and then grew in popularity and went to Broadway on stage from 2008-2011.
Subsequently, it toured across major cities of the world including, Melbourne, Sao Paulo, Tokyo, Seoul, Vancouver and London’s West End, as well as garnering many awards.
Ramos is very likeable as Usnavi and he narrates his story to a group of young children telling them never to forget their “little dreams”. He also tells them how he came to be named, introduces us to his love interest, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and reveals he is too shy to chat her up.
The sub plot concerns Nina (Leslie Grace Martinez) who manages to get into Stanford University (an elite educational institution) “but can’t hack it” (her words) and comes back home to the “block”.
She experiences racism at the university, and feels like she is treated as a servant.
She also talks more widely about everyday racism she encounters and it is skilfully woven into the fabric of the story and does lead you to reflect.
Nina’s song, ‘Breathe’ is great and Martinez has a beautiful voice.
She is also in love with Benny (Corey Hawkins) a young black man who works at her father’s taxi firm. Their duet, ‘Sunrise’ is also well voiced.
The women are shown as ambitious and want to escape their neighbourhood for a dream Downtown while the men lack drive.
The bigger song numbers like ‘96,000’ set around the outdoor lido and ‘Black Out’ on the street are fascinating to watch.
The Cuban aunt/dance-off at the Club/undocumented youngster and a winning lottery ticket all come together to create a happy ending that is de rigueur in a big swinging musical like this.
Loud, vibrant and pulsating this is a celebration of a community rarely represented in musicals.
ACV rating: ***** (five out of five)
‘In the Heights’ is out in the UK from today (June 18)
Main picture: Cuca (Dascha Polanco), Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) in ‘In the Heights’