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'In The Heights' Leaps From Stage To Screen With Exuberance To Spare

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Onto another story. Before Lin-Manuel Miranda created the hit musical "Hamilton," he wrote another Broadway show that ran for years - "In The Heights." Instead of a founding father, it celebrates a New York neighborhood. Well, the movie version arrives this weekend, and Bob Mondello says it has made the leap from stage to screen with exuberance to spare.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Neuva York is awakening to the hottest day of the summer. People spilling out of brownstone apartment buildings in upper Manhattan, every sound syncopated - water from a hose, the clank of a gate, a manhole cover spun by a young bodega owner as if he's DJ'ing the shaking-off of the city's slumber.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

ANTHONY RAMOS: (As Usnavi de la Vega, rapping) Lights up on Washington Heights, up at the break of day. I wake up, and I got this little punk I got to chase away. Pop the grate at the crack of dawn. Sing while I wipe down the awning. Hey, y'all. Good morning.

MONDELLO: This is Usnavi, who's about to introduce us to enough pals that you'll think you've met half the barrio - Vanessa, the girl he's afraid to ask for a date; her co-workers at the beauty shop; Benny, the cab dispatcher; Nina, who got into Stanford; teen cousin Sonny; and Abuela Claudia, who gets through days with patience and faith.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

OLGA MEREDIZ: (As Abuela Claudia, singing) Every day - (singing in Spanish).

MONDELLO: Director Jon M. Chu has each of them pop in and out, and then has Usnavi look out the bodega window.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) So we cannot stop. This is our block.

MONDELLO: What had been an empty street is now teeming with people, hundreds spinning and leaping in unison. It's a sight that might have been cool pre-pandemic, in an old movie musical way, but after a year of social distancing, it's flat-out electrifying. How on earth will the director follow it, you wonder? It turns out by doing it again and again and again, with occasional timeouts for those characters we just met. Each has a dream, usually of heading somewhere else - Benny to business school, Vanessa to a career in fashion, Usnavi to his native Dominican Republic with his cousin Sonny and Abuela Claudia, who's grandmother to the whole community

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

MEREDIZ: (As Abuela Claudia) Oh, Usnavi. (Speaking Spanish) - workaholic. You think it would be different in the Dominican Republic?

RAMOS: (As Usnavi) Here I work to survive. (Speaking Spanish) - will be a labor of love. The plan was always to go back. You, me and Sonny?

GREGORY DIAZ IV: (As Sonny) The tropical air will keep you young, girl.

MEREDIZ: (As Abuela Claudia, laughter) Caramba. Buy me a bikini.

MONDELLO: On Broadway in 2008, Lin-Manuel Miranda made multiculturalism this show's watch-cry, just as he would to more telling effect when he created "Hamilton" a few years later. Here, characters hail from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the D.R. And more than a decade later, that still feels like a breath of fresh tropical air, as Usnavi - budding superstar Anthony Ramos - lights up the screen, even as he hides his light under a bushel when Vanessa bats her lashes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

MELISSA BARRERA: (As Vanessa, singing) You owe me a bottle of cold champagne.

RAMOS: (As Usnavi, singing) Are you moving?

BARRERA: (As Vanessa, singing) Just a little credit check, and I'm on that downtown train.

RAMOS: (As Usnavi, singing) Well, your coffee's on the house.

BARRERA: (As Vanessa, singing) OK.

COREY HAWKINS: (As Benny, singing) Usnavi, ask her out.

DIAZ: (As Sonny, singing) No way.

BARRERA: (As Vanessa, singing) I'll see you later, so...

MONDELLO: And she's out the door, and he didn't ask her out again.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

HAWKINS: (As Benny, rapping) Yo, smooth operator...

MONDELLO: What ties all this together isn't so much a plot as a string of vignettes about gentrification, power outages, beauty parlor gossip. There are intimate songs about dreams and dreamers, but generally, when a moment threatens to become dramatic, someone yells something like...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

RAMOS: (As Usnavi, singing) Can we make a little noise tonight?

MONDELLO: And we're into another splashy dance number, in one case with actual splashing; other times with visual fantasies director Chu has cooked up to illustrate character fantasies - bolts of fabric soaring off rooftops, chain-link fences that morph into subway maps, a gravity-defying dance on a fire escape, all lovely and upbeat and summery, which should make "In The Heights," in summary, just the ticket for a pandemic-weary crowd that wants to head back to the multiplex. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.