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‘In the Heights’ is vibrant, entertaining

The most common criticism tossed at any play or musical turned into a movie might be “stagebound.”

No one will use that word to describe “In the Heights.” Director Jon M. Chu and screenwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the book for the stage production, do a magnificent job of opening up this story of multicultural strivers and dreamers in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood.

As someone who’s never seen the musical live, it’s hard to imagine how some of these scenes ever existed on a stage. City streets and a public pool became the stage for dance numbers featuring dozens of performers. Young lovers do a pas de deux on the side of an apartment building.

The result is vibrant, colorful, entertaining … and maybe a little long.

Most of the characters are first- or second-generation immigrants and everyone has a suenito — a little dream.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who runs a neighborhood market, wants to return to his homeland in the Dominican Republic and run the beachfront bar his father left behind to come to America.

Kevin (Jimmy Smits) wants to give his smart daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) the opportunities he never had, even if it means selling off his business one piece at a time to pay for her tuition. Nina wants to live up to the expectations of her father and her community, but feels lost and adrift across the country at Stanford without that neighborhood support system. Benny (Corey Hawkins) wants to keep Kevin’s business (and his relationship with Nina) afloat.

Some strive to move on from Washington Heights, like Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who aspires to be a fashion designer. Others struggle to stay in a neighborhood that is starting to gentrify and price them out of their apartments and businesses.

“In the Heights” certainly isn’t an unknown entity. It won four Tony Awards, including best musical, in 2008. But it probably wouldn’t have gotten the budget the film adaptation attracted if it was wasn’t for the follow-up musical by its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda — “Hamilton.”

Miranda, who starred in the show on Broadway, takes a minor role as the neighborhood guy who operates the shaved ice cart. Christopher Jackson, who played George Washington in “Hamilton” and Benny in the Broadway production of “In the Heights,” also makes a cameo, and there’s a clever musical wink to “Hamilton.”

Not that “In the Heights” needs that wink. Miranda already was developing that distinctive mix of hip hop and blazing rap flow with Broadway songcraft, and “Hamilton” fans will notice some similarities, but here it’s served up with a Latin beat and salsa rhythms.

The casting is strong with a mix of Broadway stars (Ramos from “Hamilton,” Daphne Rubin-Vega from “Rent,” Olga Merediz, who originated the role of Abuela Claudia on Broadway), newcomers (Grace and the stunning Barrera) and familiar faces like Smits, who seems right at home as a song-and-dance man.

This is a show of constant movement, which makes Christopher Scott’s choreography one of its true stars, and director Chu (best known for “Crazy Rich Asians”) stages the dance numbers with both a contemporary flair and a nod to the past, particularly the swimming pool dance sequence, which recalls the old Busby Berkeley musicals and the films of Esther Williams.

Just like many great musicals, the song and dance keeps the audience distracted from how slight the story is. It’s one of the reasons the second half drags a bit as it tries to tie up all of the plotlines. Don’t expect many surprises (except for the location of that winning lottery ticket), but that won’t be a fatal flaw either.

“In the Heights” premieres simultaneously on HBO Max (for 31 days) and in theaters. I watched a screener at home, and I wished I was seeing those dance numbers play out on a big screen. But “In the Heights” should entertain regardless of the height of the picture.

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