For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic started 16 months ago, I finally had the courage to see a movie in an actual theater last night (June 10).  The coronavirus had been a threat for months.

The lure was “In the Heights,” the highly anticipated film version of the Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway musical, which I saw at Consolidated’s Ward Centre complex. It was a 5:10 p.m. screening, a day ahead of today’s (June 11) national release date in theaters across America (also streaming on HBO Max).

ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Till now, in my opinion, there hasn’t been a bona fide gotta-see-it-in-a-theater-attraction till “Heights” arrived. It’s this summer’s first big hit (it can’t fail), with Anthony Ramos (“Hamilton,” “A Star Is Born”) playing Usnavi, a bodega owner originally portrayed by Miranda on stage. Of course, Miranda co-wrote the musical and the new film in collaboration with Quiara Alegria Hudes.

Advice: Don’t be afraid of “Heights.”  This is a true Hollywood musical, masterfully directed by Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), with dash and splash and hip-hop songs aplenty. Parallel love stories co-exist with spectacles, and there are many exhilarating moments, like hundreds of agile dancers hip-hopping, popping, boogieing in the streets when they’re not prancing and swimming in a spectacular old-fashioned kaleidoscopic water ballet scene in the Highbridge Pool (shot from overhead, natch). The latter is an homage to the Esther Williams-Busby Berkeley tradition,  and a feel-good, high energy vibe of real people doing real things with real dreams and real pain.

In other words, a worthy and relevant documentation of Washington Heights folks – largely Puerto Rican and Latino, with some blacks and whites — bonding and connecting in New York’s Upper West Side, struggling to make a buck, sort out conflicts in life, worrying about college payments, dreaming of winning the lottery of $96,000, and fearful and deprived of a planned black-out to ease the strain of power providers during a summer of intense heat.

The common denominator in the film and its populace is the keen and continuous dream and gleam of winning the lottery, and what to do, if and when.  Move out of the hood? Invest in a new shop? Pay off college debt?  Fantasy and reality meet head on, in a fusion of hope and the sense of community and culture is steadfast. And whoa, what a sweet dance scene when lovers in a tenement porch suddenly start moving up the walls amid ACs and steps in one of the most endearing moments of romantic fantasy

They key characters are modest icons of folks in any community. Usnavi’s gal Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) wants to exit to downtown, for a new life; Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), the young assistant cousin of Usnavi at the store, wishes for computers to share with his barrio buds; the senoritas at the local beauty salon want to scoot to Atlantic City in pursuit of joy.

Cuba in the ’40s, she delivers a poignant “Paciencia y Fe,” reflecting the hardship of emigration.

And Jimmy Smits appears as Kevin Rosario, a cab service owner caught in a financial bind and his daughter Nina’s (Leslie Grace ) conflicted status as a collegial student or drop out

Two cameos are worth noting. Miranda appears as the piragua (shave ice) peddler; Christopher Jackson (“Hamilton,” “Bull”) is the scene-stealing dude in the Mister Softee van.

The presence of the George Washington Bridge, looming down the street, gives “Heights” an immediate sense of time and place, standing watch over the trials and tribulations of a community pride.

Ramos, with his charming, freckled face, likely will emerge as filmdom’s next big star, and being a Latino will help bridge the gap on diversity issues. His smile is genuine, his heart gigantic, he manages to leap from the crowd scenes to create a warm, convincing leading man.

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