Critics and audiences are all over the map on the new Broadway revival of West Side Story, staged by avant-garde Belgian director Ivo Van Hove. Some find it a striking reinvention of the beloved 1957 Leonard Bernstein-Jerome Robbins-Stephen Sondheim musical. For others, it’s a confusing desecration.
My own reaction is complicated by a somewhat embarrassing confession. Although, growing up in the ‘60s, I loved and listened to (mainly on original-cast albums) most of the classic American musicals, West Side Story is one show that largely escaped me. I never saw a high-school or local-theater production, somehow missed the Oscar-winning 1961 movie, and never really cared much for the show’s music; the big ballads, like “Tonight” and “Maria,” always struck me as rather sappy and bland. They still do.
So I came to the new production without any special affection for the show, or a nostalgic ax to grind. In fact, I feel safe in assuming that I’m the only theater critic in America who is assessing the new Broadway revival in reverse order: I saw it three days before I finally sat down with my Amazon Prime and watched the 1961 Robert Wise-directed film for the first time.
The movie (my quickie review, 58 years late) holds up very well: still fresh-looking, innovative in its integration of dance and New York City locations, emotionally powerful, and surprisingly bold, for the time, in its treatment of the racial prejudice that fuels its Romeo and Juliet story, set amid warring New York City street gangs. The one clinker is the presence of Natalie Wood in the starring role of Maria. She doesn’t sing (Marni Nixon does it for her), barely dances, and isn’t even Latina. Hollywood!
Van Hove, known for his radical restagings of classic dramas by Ibsen, Arthur Miller, and others, has rethought the musical in fairly predictable ways: moving it away from ‘50s-era romance and toward a more “gritty” contemporary realism. The show opens with members of the Jets trooping onstage in what looks like a police lineup and glaring at the audience, their scowls and facial tattoos blown up on a giant video screen behind them. Robbins’s ballet-like choreography has been replaced by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s more colloquial “street” movement — lots of kicks, thrusts, slides and rolls. The show speeds along at an intermissionless hour and 45 minutes. The musical’s happiest number, “I Feel Pretty,” has been dropped altogether. Given the grim mood, it is understandable.
The new choreography is probably the show’s strongest feature: both acrobatic and architecturally complex, striking in a way that builds on, rather than dismisses, Robbins’s groundbreaking work. And most of the performers are just fine: Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel, as the cross-cultural lovers, are youthful and engaging, sing well (though her lustrous, operatic soprano is quite a contrast with his pleasant, boyish tenor), and actually show some chemistry onstage.
But their tragic love story seems to get lost in Van Hove’s tricky, video-dominated production. Sometimes the big screen merely supplements the stage action with closeups or fresh angles, shot by camera operators roaming the stage. At other times, entire scenes (in the drugstore where Tony works, or Maria’s bedroom) are played in a little cubbyhole at the rear of the stage, and the only way to watch it is through the simulcast on the big screen. The total effect is distancing, untheatrical, and sometimes plain annoying. “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the show’s one comic number, is dampened considerably by the moody New York street video that accompanies it. Can’t we have any fun? (While he was reinventing, Van Hove might have taken a cue from the movie and moved the song to the first act, where it’s less of a tonal disruption.)
It may be the West Side Story for our Trumpian moment. But the show has had its own shaky encounters with current political sensitivities. Its casting of Amar Ramasar in the role of Bernardo, leader of the Latino gang, has drawn protests, due to allegations of sexual harassment against him at the New York City Ballet. Less noted (because the topic is too sensitive) has been the confusion posed by the show’s diversity casting — namely, the fact that the “white” Jets gang is now a racially mixed group. It is probably unavoidable in Broadway’s new woke era. Still, in a show whose very theme is racial hatred — a white gang versus a Latino gang — it muddles the message. Just as this production often muddles what is — I might belatedly agree — a great American musical.