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Review: In the Heights (cinematic release)

The film version of the Broadway classic arrives as cinemas reopen

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Christopher Jackson in In the Heights
© Macall Polay

Lights up: In the Heights is finally making its way to the silver screen, just as cinemas across the nation dust themselves down and get back into action after many, many months of closure. Bringing the party this summer will be a wealth of long-delayed big-screen bonanzas – including this adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes' award-winning musical.

There's no antagonism in In the Heights – merely dreams, hopes and aspirations. Following a community of first and second generation immigrants in Washington Heights as they push to realise their ambitions, it's bursting at the seams with the sort of urgent, community-orientated joy that seems to have fizzled away over the last 14 months.

Leading the pack is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), a bodega-owning dreamer pining to one day raise the funds to return to the Dominican Republic. He's joined by wise-cracking and politically astute Sonny (played by 16 year-old Gregory Diaz IV, who has a raft of stage credits to his name including Matilda), and his best friend Benny (The Walking Dead's Corey Hawkins), who works in the cab company across the street.

From there we're introduced to a cavalcade of vibrant, ebullient figures – the salon owner and the high priestess of the Heights Daniella (Rent's Daphne Rubin-Vega, finally given the chance to shine in a musical movie adaptation, having been pregnant during the filming of Jonathan Larson's late ‘90s epic), plus her partner Carla (a fun musical role for Brooklyn 99's Stephanie Beatriz).

An adaptation of a musical has to justify its presence on the big screen: merely replicating what has been depicted on stage is a redundant exercise. You might as well tape the show and crack on. Director Jon M Chu understands this in spades – dishing out mega-moment after mega-moment. Everywhere there are signs that it's been dialled up to 11 – the epic performance of "96,000" in Highbridge Pool sees the camera duck and dive into and out of water, weaving between synchronised swimmers. There's something you'd never see on stage. Another moment, shot deep underground in a deserted subway station, is also a rich visual feast – totally in keeping with the Crazy Rich Asians director's style.

On set in the salon
(© 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved, photo by Macall Polay))

Ramos, stepping into Miranda's shoes to take on the lead role, gives it everything: it's pretty obvious from the athletic opening number that this is a guy with the comedy, musical and dance chops to carry the piece through to its touching conclusion. Leslie Grace takes on the role of Nina – a Stanford student who quits her studies following a bout of intense racial discrimination in her halls. Grace plays the role with a tender, introspective sedateness (a hard thing to pull off in a musical movie where going "big" is often the default). It's very much at odds with the powerful vocal turn delivered by Mandy Gonzalez on Broadway – a fun, new twist on the character, wracked by an identity crisis.

Hudes returns to write the screenplay after working on the book and lyrics with Miranda. She makes some splendid adjustments, giving the character of Vanessa (a driven, playful performance from Melissa Barrera) a much more significant backstory (putting her squarely in the driving seat), while switching and swapping numbers and scenes to make the story of matriarch "Abuela" Claudia (the spellbinding Olga Merediz, returning to the role for which she was nominated for a Tony).

There are some slightly dismaying omissions: Corey Hawkins loses out on a chunk of Benny's character arc from the stage show, though still provides some tip-top vocals across a fair few numbers, including the lens-flare enchantment that is "When the Sun Goes Down". Hudes has refined, trimmed and cropped her stage narrative here – the film feels keener, more urgent (it is interesting to note that it would have originally come out months before the 2020 Election, but now bows in its wake).

Theatre fans will spot a wad of easter eggs: a Hamilton tune pops up at one point, while resident Broadway baddie Patrick Page moves from Hadestown to a laundromat. A couple more original Heights cast members get fun cameos, while Miranda has a blast with a solo number as the coolest guy on the street corner. The stagey resonance of a post-credit scene will almost make you tear up, as two lifelong chums share the final shot.

Having been deprived of cinema for so long, it's a joy to be welcomed back to the big screen for a (slightly overlong) stay with Miranda's larger-than-life community. An unmissable summer treat for any musical lover.