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'In The Heights' takes movie musicals to new elevations

Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning play finally arrives in theaters and on HBO Max.

DALLAS — Discrimination, gentrification, alienation... all set to song and dance! Those are some of the themes explored in Lin-Manuel Miranda's explosion of a musical, "In The Heights." But it all works beautifully because of the one '-ation' I left out: celebration!

Since his groundbreaking "Hamilton," we all sit up and pay attention to anything connected to Miranda's name. But he started working on "In The Heights" well before that, while attending college. 

It's based on a book that explored the New York neighborhood very near where he grew up. Fast forward to 2008, when it won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. (You may have seen the national tour in 2012 at the Winspear Opera House.)

On stage, Miranda played the main character, Usnavi (named after a ship in the harbor). He wisely hands over the movie role to the younger Anthony Ramos, one of his "Hamilton" co-stars. 

(Don't worry, Miranda is featured as a frozen ice seller.) 

Usnavi runs a bodega in Washington Heights but longs to return to his native Dominican Republic and for Vanessa to fall in love with him. But he has all of us in the audience as backups, as Ramos' charisma just bursts from the screen. 

Also competing for our affection: Olga Merediz as Abuela, everyone's grandma. Merediz also played Abuela on Broadway. Her performance of 'Paciencia y Fe' (Patience and Faith) will have you in tears.

With Usnavi's bodega the crossroads of the neighborhood, we learn Vanessa wants to move uptown to pursue fashion design, the hair salon is being pushed out by high rent, and everybody else's business that I don't want to give away. 

There are also some updates from the stage version that improve the storytelling. But what really makes "In The Heights" soar is that the musical numbers take over a street, carry up a wall and even jump into a giant swimming pool! 

Hats off to director John M. Chu, who in addition to "Crazy Rich Asians," directed two "Step Up" movies. He brought along his choreographer, Christopher Scott, and the two make magic with their authentic and talented cast.

That brings us to another '-ation': anticipation. The release was purposely held through the pandemic so you could experience it on the big screen. Is it as good as "Hamilton?" How could it be, really? But it is a fresh, dynamic and heartfelt celebration of Latinx heritage. 

If you enjoy musicals, "Heights" will not let you down.

(Warner Bros. Rated PG-13. In theaters and streaming on HBO Max)


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