When it comes to my particular taste in entertainment, musicals are fairly recent. It's a genre that I haven't really given a huge chance to, and there are many big titles I haven't seen yet, simply due to lack of interest. I finally started opening my mind up much more to them since 2016's 'LA LA Land' (one of the first movie I reviewed on this site). Since then, I've decided to give musicals a fair shake, and I can't really deny that there's something about them I can get into - perhaps the feel-good fantasy of it all. There really is something incredibly expressive about telling a story through song, and this is certainly no exception.
As the film opens, we meet Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) hanging out on a beach, and telling a group of kids a story about his experiences back home in Washington Heights. He lives with the neighbourhood's mother figure, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), and owns a bodega where he delights in catering to the good people of the area. We are further introduced to Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) who runs the local taxi dispatch, and is father to recent Stanford drop-out, Nina (Leslie Grace); love interest to one of Kevin's employees, Benny (Corey Hawkins). Meanwhile, side-stories unfold involving Usnavi's little cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), salon ladies, Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco) and Vanessa; Usnavi's love interest.
A lot of the plot is pretty simplistic, if bittersweet one, having to do with the Washington Heights area of New York City slowly fading away over time. On one hand, the locals are preparing to get out of the area and follow their dreams before they get stuck, broke and without power (a blackout plays a pretty big role here). On the other hand, the same locals see the community as a sort of family, and Washington Heights is plan and simply "home". So in some ways, the film could be seen as a touch contradictory. I sort of found my own meaning to it all though, in that while the grass may be greener on the other side of the fence, there's something about the current situation one may take comfort with. It's the difference between living where you were born, raised and made friends vs what may yet be a better lifestyle.
Getting the weaker points out of the way first, I did find this to be a very simplistic story with not a whole lot of originality. It is another musical about following dreams, it is another musical with a a love story or two, and in some ways, it becomes musical to a fault. What I mean by that is, this is one of those musicals that's almost all singing, very seldom taking any breaks. Even just the causal convo is lyrical, which may be trouble for some to get around. It's also a touch predictable, and once it ends the way it does, you may shrug your shoulders and say "ah, I thought that might happen". I have also heard that there are some pretty big changes going on here that alter the original musical in several ways, so if you've seen and become a fan of the musical, you might be a bit disappointed.
Having said all that, speaking for myself, I find the good certainly outweighs the bad here. I actually really enjoyed the musical numbers here, and was hard-pressed to find one I didn't enjoy. The one that really stands out here for me, 'Paciencia Y Fe', has to do with Abuela reminiscing about her past as an immigrant, and it does tug at the heart strings quite a bit. The other big standouts for me were the 'In the Heights' opening, '96,000'; a song about the possibilities of winning the local lottery, and 'Blackout', which was just a catchy and really well choreographed number that sees a lot happen throughout it. I have to say, the music is ultimately very catchy here, and gives me a whole new reason to finally check out 'Hamilton', as it also involves the multi-talented Lin-Manuel Miranda's lyrics and song writing (among other things... yes, I know, I haven't seen 'Hamilton' yet).
When it was all sang and done, I definitely enjoyed myself. Even though I mention the plot being so simplistic, sometimes that's just what's needed. I think people can get a lot from this (at least if they haven't seen the original play), especially in this day and age. With Covid 19, theaters are just barely opening back up (except for up here in Ontario, Canada) and this is a nice, feel-good, catchy musical that has a lot to do with getting out into the open, and having a community come together in a big way. This could almost be seen as a well-timed celebration of life, if you look at it a certain way. It's fun, it's upbeat, and still had enough heavy moments for it to be appropriately dramatic. So, if you like a good musical that's a bit heavier on the sing-song side that delivers a mostly feel-good story, this is a good one to check out!