June 20, 2021 – In the waning days of the pandemic, an uplifting musical seemed just the ticket, so I went to see it at a local theater. If you like a musical with a lot of good singing and dancing, “In the Heights” is packed and loaded with both.
My first impression of it is that it seemed very long at two hours and 22 minutes. It's true that there are longer musicals, such as “West Side Story” and “South Pacific,” but those tend to be musicals that are more operatic, featuring life and death drama. “In the Heights” is not that dramatic.
The two main story lines have to do with immigrants and their relationship to each other and to the American Dream. The stories are set in the Washington Heights neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, against the backdrop of an extended power outage.
One story line has to do with Bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (the film's narrator and storyteller) and his dream of reopening his late father's beach front business in the Dominican Republic. However, his budding relationship with the lovely Vanessa (played by Melissa Barrera) is a powerful incentive for him to stay put in the Heights. Vanessa has her own dreams of being a fashion designer.
Yet another business owner in the Heights, Kevin Rosario (played by Jimmy Smits of “NYPD Blue”) has dreams of putting his daughter through school at Stanford, which is ridiculously expensive. His daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace) returns home and announces she has dropped out of school, in part, because of her father's financial difficulties in trying to pay for her very expensive education.
While Kevin is upset at his daughter's return, her neighborhood boyfriend, Benny (Corey Hawkins of “BlacKkKlansman”) is happy to see her back in the Heights. There are also a lot of other characters and sub-plots in this musical, including a Piragüero (old-fashioned hand-cart shaved-ice treat street vendor) whose business is being threatened by an ice cream truck. The Piragüero is played by Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame (as a college student in 1999, he also wrote the musical on which this movie is based).
Another key figure in the story is the neighborhood matriarch, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz of “The Place Beyond the Pines”). There is also a hair dresser whose business is being threatened by gentrification. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos of “Hamilton”) employs teenager, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) at his Bodega, but Sonny can't go with him to the Dominican Republic because Sonny is an undocumented immigrant.
Perhaps trying to shoehorn all these plots and sub-plots into the story is what makes this musical seem so long and overwhelming. I didn't have trouble keeping up with the characters and their stories, but it seemed to me that all the subplots diluted the main stories. On the other hand, all these characters and sub-plots provide a lot more singing and dancing sequences.
In the end, what comes across is the unity and power of families, friendships and the community to overcome obstacles and to persevere. It is a positive and uplifting film with good songs and dances. The acting and characterizations are convincing.
I found one of the main story lines problematic, however, and that is the tension between business owner Kevin Rosario and his daughter, Nina. The question I have concerns the character of Nina. Is she living out her dream, or her father's dream, and is her education worth her father selling the business he spent his whole life building up from nothing?
A lot of people these days are wondering about the real value of a college education, and whether it is worth the high cost. A lot of college graduates will never make enough money in their entire lives to pay for their student loans. Is that freedom, or is it really indentured servitude? Compare this to the situation of electricians and plumbers, no student loans needed, who make over $50,000 per year, about the same amount of money that the average college graduate makes. These questions seem superficially glossed over in this long movie, which rates a B.
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