‘West Side Story’ Rumbles Full-Force Into A New Century: Broadway Review

One of the breathtaking moments in director Ivo van Hove’s bold, gorgeous multi-media re-imagining of the great New York musical West Side Story comes when those famously brawling street gangs restrain the tale’s star-crossed lovers from kissing. Each side pulls its own, tug-of-war-style, one holding back Tony, the other Maria, and it takes every last Jet and Shark to do the job. They succeed, more or less and just barely.

If there’s a fresher, more vivid way to interpret “Tonight,” that classic ballad of hope and anticipation, it likely hasn’t been seen since this 1957 Broadway masterwork debuted all those decades ago. The tableau – at once funny and ominous – is set against a video backdrop depicting a New York street as rainy and full of shadow as any film noir. Theatrical stylization collides bang-on with cinematic realism, and the result is thrilling.

Opening tonight at the Broadway Theatre, van Hove’s West Side Story has already made more than its share of headlines, whether about injured dancers or street protests or dumping the too-precious “I Feel Pretty” or simply the audacity of replacing Jerome Robbins’ beloved and iconic choreography for a new, more contemporary take by van Hove’s fellow Belgian Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. This review will concern itself only with what’s on stage.

And that’s more than enough. With scenic and lighting design by van Hove’s longtime collaborator Jan Versweyveld, and video projections by Luke Halls that more than bolster the argument for finally giving that art its very own Tony Award category, this West Side Story fills the massive performing space at the Broadway Theatre with non-stop movement both on the stage and on the drive-in theater-size screen behind it.

Small flourishes hold their own against grand visual statements: When Tony (Isaac Powell) and Maria (Shereen Pimentel) sing to one another as they lean against a mirror, their breath frosts the glass in momentary designs (a lovely detail we see courtesy of van Hove’s trademark video cameras). When rain falls through much of the final act, the downpour, soaking the stage and beautifully lit by Versweyveld, creates a cinematic effect that only a dancer wary of slipping could begrudge.

Perhaps it’s exactly that visual hustle and bustle that might polarize audiences, with massive video images sometimes flashing close-ups of the onstage action, sometimes taking a Busby Berkeley bird’s-eye-view perspective and still other times displaying pre-taped visions of near-empty city streets at night, the occasional glimpse of silhouetted dancers in the distance.

There’s a simple answer to anyone wondering where to look: Everywhere.

Feel free to focus on the nose-to-nose on-screen close-ups of two warring gang members, or the security-camera view of a sexual assault in a soda shop’s backroom, or the rousing choreography that has the entire, stage-filling ensemble moving with the sweeping, swarming precision of a flock of starlings.

De Keersmaeker’s movement design, with references to the lush vivacity of Latino culture and the stark minimalism of contemporary dance (an unexpected, in-unison sway drew audible gasps from the audience at the reviewed performance), should leave few but the most loyal of Broadway sentimentalists refusing to follow West Side Story outside Robbins’ glorious steps. If Daniel Fish’s dark, brilliant interpretation of Oklahoma! taught us anything, it’s to make room for new, deserving visions.

With Pimentel as a tougher, more streetwise Maria than Natalie Wood could have imagined, and a star-making performance by Powell as a thoroughly lovable Tony, this West Side Story disregards, or, more accurately, rises above the strict ethnic representations seemingly demanded by the plot: Without changing a word of Arthur Laurents’ book – the Sharks are still described as newly arrived from Puerto Rico, the Jets as the only slightly more longstanding New Yorkers of Italian and Polish descent – van Hove populates the gangs with faces of every shade, street warriors from wave after wave of the city’s immigrants.

If the approach reflects New York’s past, van Hove’s West Side Story is thoroughly 2020 (there’s an openly gay couple or two among those Sharks and Jets). The costume design by An D’Huys is a mash-up of athletic wear, a touch of leather, unbuttoned silky shirts, skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors tossed together with Daisy Dukes and tank-tops, a vaguely post-Apocalyptic look that brings the original production’s ’50s-era rock and roll spirit to an age of hip-hop and East Village scruff.

Is it necessary to praise Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics? Just mentioning a sampling of song titles should do the trick: “Jet Song,” “Maria,” “Somewhere” and “Something’s Coming,” incomparable anthems given terrific voice – for the most part – by this large cast. Some here-and-there weak moments pop up – “Jet Song” gets off to a shaky start, and “America” is lacking in Rita Moreno – but more often the reinterpretations are dazzling. “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love” showcases lovely harmonies between Pimentel’s Maria and Yesenia Ayala’s Anita, and a fierce “Gee, Officer Krupke” transforms comic teenage rebellion into lacerating outrage against police brutality.

Among the large ensemble, Jacob Guzman makes for a (momentarily) terrifying Chino (there’s a moment of shocking bloodshed to rival Daniel Fish’s dispatching of Oklahoma‘s poor Jud), and both Amar Ramasar (as Shark leader Bernardo) and Dharon E. Jones (as Jets leader Riff) have the streetwise bravado down pat. As Doc, the hapless soda shop owner baffled by the self-destructive volatility of youth, Daniel Oreskes is the very embodiment of middle-aged inconsequence.

Even with the stand-out performance by Powell (whose knee injury during previews necessitated a thankfully temporary absence), West Side Story is a far more balanced effort than van Hove’s previous Broadway production, the Bryan Cranston-dominated Network. The director brings his thoroughly modern lens (and the team needed to carry it) to what might be the single greatest group effort in musical theater history. Robbins, who conceived it, and Laurents, Bernstein and Sondheim who gave it voice, created a Broadway masterpiece. Van Hove delivers it, emboldened, to the 21st Century.

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