Washington Heights is an ac­tu­al Man­hat­tan neigh­bor­hood but the mov­ie "In the Heights" is not set in the real world. It takes place in the world of musi­cals, which is full of mag­ic and possi­bili­ties.

Jon M. Chu, who di­rect­ed "Crazy Rich Asians" and a cou­ple of the "Step Up" dance movies, is faith­ful to the Tony-winning Broadway show by Lin-Man­u­el Mi­randa and Quiara Alegría Hudes that was pro­duced at the Ord­way in 2017. But he im­proves it by shift­ing from a nat­u­ral­is­tic look at life in New York to storytelling that's not re­al­is­tic at all.

Ev­er­y­one in the neigh­bor­hood is a back­up danc­er, for in­stance. The past of­ten in­trudes on the pres­ent, as when el­der­ly Claudia takes cen­ter stage and the peo­ple of her Cu­ban child­hood sud­den­ly ap­pear, sing­ing and dan­cing along with her. It's al­most as if the "In the Heights" char­ac­ters live in a mov­ie, and a­lert view­ers will spot bor­row­ings from "It's a Won­der­ful Life," "Royal Wed­ding," "West Side Sto­ry" (which takes place just south of Washington Heights) and even "Hamilton." Writ­ten by "Heights" song­writ­er Mi­randa, that megahit gets a call­back here in a bit of on-hold mu­sic that fans will rec­og­nize as "You'll Be Back."

"In the Heights" is about dreams. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, e­nor­mous­ly lik­a­ble) runs a bo­de­ga but plans to open a beach­front bar in the Dom­i­ni­can Republic, where his peo­ple are from. Man­i­cur­ist Va­nes­sa (Me­lis­sa Bar­rera) dreams of a ca­reer in fash­ion. Nina (Les­lie Grace) wants to be the first in her Nu­yo­ri­can fam­i­ly to gradu­ate from col­lege while her fa­ther (Jimmy Smits) en­vi­sions a bet­ter life for her. Claudia (Olga Merediz) wants to help make all of those things hap­pen and young Sonny (Greg­o­ry Diaz IV) has long­ings he keeps to him­self.

Mi­randa did a bet­ter job of keep­ing track of the huge en­sem­ble in his next show, "Hamilton," but the mov­ie and stage "Heights" are un­gain­ly, with a sto­ry arc more like a se­ries of sto­ry waves that crest too early.

The flip side is that Chu makes every min­ute of "In the Heights" over­flow with life, en­er­gy and fun. That's true from an open­ing song that intro­duc­es all the char­ac­ters to a post-cred­its clos­er with Mi­randa and his "Hamilton" co-star Chris Jackson. There's also a play­ful tune sung in a beau­ty shop where even a wall of wigs busts a move. And a num­ber where dan­cing lov­ers defy grav­i­ty — as, in a way, all lov­ers do.

Some musi­cals are sheep­ish about ad­mit­ting they are musi­cals, hid­ing songs in per­form­ance scenes ("Dream­girls") or turn­ing them into in­ter­nal mono­logues ("Yentl"). But "In the Heights" takes the "Grease"/"Hed­wig and the An­gry Inch" ap­proach of say­ing, es­sen­tial­ly, "We as­sume you love this goofy stuff, too, so we are going to lean into it."

The nonstop joy (there isn't even a vil­lain, un­less you count the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion that threat­ens the neigh­bor­hood) is bal­anced by intro­spec­tive mo­ments that deep­en our con­nec­tion to the char­ac­ters. Twice, Nina paus­es to say, "Let me just lis­ten to my block," with the re­sul­ting birdsong, laugh­ing of chil­dren and boun­cing of balls help­ing us ap­pre­ci­ate why she is re­luc­tant to leave Washington Heights. Those are a­mong many scenes where we see what Claudia means when she ex­plains that she cher­ish­es nap­kins em­broid­ered by her moth­er be­cause they're a­mong the "little de­tails that tell the world we are not in­vis­ible."

Vis­i­bil­i­ty is a strength of "In the Heights," which is di­verse in near­ly every way you can think of: eth­nic­i­ty, body type, gen­der, class. All the peo­ple are work­ing to­gether to cre­ate an ide­al­ized fu­ture that, to par­a­phrase Smits' char­ac­ter, some of us can't even dream of.

Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367

In the Heights

⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars

Rating: PG-13 for language.

Theater: Wide release and on HBO Max.