The colourful new movie from the director of Crazy Rich Asians and the creator of Hamilton is a reassuringly old-fashioned musical

It's hard not to think that you’ve stumbled into an epic episode of Sesame Street or Fame while watching this exuberant musical from Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu. Based on Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit of the same name, it is a two-and-a-half-hour sensory overload about the lives, loves, and dreams of the vibrant Latino community in the New York district of Washington Heights.

It is a non-stop, all-singing, all dancing spectacle that is reassuringly - and maybe refreshingly - old school. It certainly takes its cues from West Side Story (there’s even a passing shot of a mural of Rita Moreno at one point). However, unlike that urban retelling of Romeo and Juliet, this concrete jungle is no crucible of racial tension. This New York is all smiley emojis and sanitised and idealised streets.

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Our leading man is Usnavi (so named because his father was impressed by a Navy ship he saw in the harbour on his first visit to New York) and he’s played by Anthony Ramos. He runs a bodega but he has a dream (everyone in In The Heights has a dream) of moving back to his native Dominican Republic and fixing up the old beach bar his father once owned but for now "he’s stuck to this corner like a streetlight".

The not so obscure object of his desire is local girl Vanessa, who dreams of moving to the heart of Manhattan and becoming a fashion designer. She’s played by one-to-watch Mexican actress Melissa Barrera and she can switch from firecracker energy to sorrowful regret in an instant. Also impressive is Leslie Grace, who makes her big screen debut as Nina, the daughter of cab company owner Kevin (Jimmy Smits).

She’s the great hope of her family after landing a coveted place at Stanford but on a visit home to her old neighbourhood she reveals that she feels alienated by her new and overwhelmingly white college life and also worries that her school fees will bankrupt her proud father.

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The sprawling cast also includes Corey Hawkins as Benny. He works despatch for the taxi company and, in the movie’s most affecting subplot, he’s negotiating a tentative romantic rekindling with Nina. Meanwhile, Sonny (Gregory Diaz), Usnavi’s feisty teenage nephew, is one of the many undocumented "Dreamers" in the US.

All these intersecting storylines unfold amid the constant rattle of the A-train and the happy mayhem of the streets. However, the locals are being priced out by gentrification and what used to be the social fabric of their community is making way for such vulgarities as organic dry cleaners and hipsters who’ve never been further north than the East Village. There goes the neighbourhood but here comes another dance routine.

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Delivered mostly in the same Sprechgesang style of Mamma Mia! and Hamilton and mixing hip hop librettos, torch songs, and Bollywoodesque pizzazz, it’s hugely likeable fare which blissfully refuses to engage with negativity or indeed reality for the real people of Washington Heights. Perhaps it didn’t need a political pulse. It’s not that kind of flick but maybe if Miranda had tweaked his original 2005 script to reflect an America left even more polarised after four years of Trumpism, In The Heights would have more agency and urgency.

An opportunity to make an abrupt dramatic switch of gear when a power cut plunges the city into darkness is squandered and Sonny’s story feels undercooked. It may have added a little grit to what is essentially a sugar-coated dream sequence of a movie.

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Still, there’s fun to be had and while it lacks any truly memorable tunes, there are spectacles aplenty, including a routine about a winning lotto ticket (and everybody plays the lotto in this movie) at the local swimming baths that goes all Busby Berkeley, and a beauty parlour samba that zings with catty one-liners and which nearly but not quite hits West Side Story sass and sizzle.

It’s a ray of sunshine, a funny and colourful fiesta of feelgood that oozes with charm, while keeping the serious issues bubbling quietly under the surface and out of sight.

Alan Corr @CorrAlan2