A story about finding and realizing your dreams, big and small, yours and others, deserves to be told in music. It is no wonder this caught the imagination of Broadway back in 2008. It isn’t just a quintessential NYC story, it is a very human story whether you’re a recent immigrant or not.
There were moments that I wondered if Lin-Manuel Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) wasn’t being too indulgent with the scope of the story; it is a long tale. But he uses all aspects of the pieces he lays out, and each fits together to provide a fuller picture at the end. Basically, trust the story-teller, he knew what he was doing.
Anthony Ramos (Honest Thief) carries the energy of the story well, if a bit light-heartedly. He is guileless and, often, clueless about how to approach what he really wants. Then again, part of the tale is him figuring that out, as it is with so many of the characters. Melissa Barrera (Vida) makes a wonderful object of his affection, and her personal interactions are great…though her drive to her own dream is somewhat washed out and weak for me. On the other hand, Leslie Grace has a thorny path that she treads well and shares beautifully for the screen as she struggles with her own doubts. She and Corey Hawkins (6 Underground) play well together as a couple, while she and Jimmy Smits have some very real engagements about life and family.
There are tons of additional characters filling out the Heights. Each gets a moment or two on their own. And all come together more than once to express joy or frustration together as a community. Of them Olga Merediz and Daphne Rubin-Vega are worth calling out for their presence and impact. But as a whole, the cast is solid and capable. All the voices are great and the choreography is inventive and fun (and occasionally a bit distracting, truth be told). Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) had a blast adapting the stage version and managed, for the most part, to make it feel like it was always intended for film with his direction.
Miranda also, despite the fantasy aspects of the story, allowed his characters moments of reality to keep it all grounded, providing windows into the real world. Which he then, of course, peanut butter’s over with great tunes and dance to take out the sting. The overall impact is as close to Fiddler on the Roof that I’ve seen in a long time. Few other musicals try to tell the story of a whole people (or peoples) and manage it with a full range of emotions. Heights isn’t at the level of Fiddler; the scope is more narrow, more personal. It tells parts of several people’s stories in a way that creates a pastiche of the experience and realities. However, it never fully acknowledges or tackles the whole ugly mess…it is more Hollywood musical (think La La Land) than off-Broadway life lesson. Still, it’s an entertaining love story and peek inside the lives of people who are so often unseen.
But, if you’re wondering why I haven’t rated it higher, it’s because it didn’t embrace some of the darker aspects of the stories we hear. Even though the script claims that not all dreams are fulfilled and not all endings are happy, Miranda couldn’t really stop himself from trying to make it that way. And I understand he wanted a celebration of life, but it made it feel too easy for me, which made the story less credible and less revisitable. Of course, others will have different reactions, or even prefer that approach, and that’s fine. Either way, you should take the trip north on the 1 train at least once at some point. And stay till the end of the credits for an extra, and amusing, scene.