With his new production of “West Side Story,” the estimable Belgian director Ivo van Hove has essentially stolen a march on no less a showbiz luminary than Steven Spielberg. How’s that for chutzpah?
Spielberg’s new film version of the classic 1957 musical, with its beloved score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, opens in December. Van Hove’s movie of the material is playing eight times a week at the Broadway Theatre already.
I am being mildly facetious, of course: Actors are performing live in van Hove’s version, which has been moved from the once-scrappy streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side (now roughly home to Lincoln Center) in the 1950s, to a setting in the Bronx, or some undefined, ungentrified New York neighborhood today. But van Hove, whose use of live and filmed video has become a signature of his work, allows this element of the production to dominate — and at times almost overwhelm — the proceedings here to an unprecedented degree. Watching van Hove’s “West Side Story,” with its near-constant use of video projected onto a screen that fills the broad expanse of the back wall of the stage, often feels more like being at the movies than at the theater.
Many of the more intimate scenes in the show — such as those taking place at the drugstore Doc’s, where Tony (Isaac Powell) works and where his gang, the Jets, often gather — are staged in a small space behind that screen, which is almost a cubbyhole. The actors are often scarcely visible, except on the screen where the action taking place is being projected. Depending on where your seat is located, you might not be able to see much of this live action at all.
The results are conflicted: This is a production that reaches the head more than the heart, inspiring more reflection than feeling. Which perhaps should not be surprising when a fundamentally cerebral director such as van Hove — who directed last season’s “Network” and Broadway revivals of “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible” — tackles the emotionally primal material of a beloved musical.
Certainly van Hove’s ambitious staging deserves plaudits for tearing up the dusty blueprint that has been used for virtually all major revivals of the show, notably by jettisoning Jerome Robbins’s celebrated choreography — as indelibly associated with the show as the sublimely beautiful Bernstein-Sondheim score. The new choreography is by the Belgian modern dance-maker Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. It is not likely to erase anyone’s memories of Robbins’s work (which, in any case, can be seen in the movie or in “West Side Story Suite,” which Robbins created for New York City Ballet and which is regularly programmed there). But for the most part de Keersmaeker’s work captures the same animalistic energy of youth ready to burst into adulthood — or maybe just burst — that Robbins drew on for inspiration. However, her more earthbound style, in keeping with the major difference between classical and modern dance, and use of sweeping, minimalist gestures, intermittently feels pallid and lacking in formal surprise; it’s often busy but surprisingly bland.
The videography is beautifully rendered, but it can be distracting — especially when the camera glides through the dark, empty streets of whichever borough the show is ostensibly taking place in, providing hypnotically beautiful visuals while the actors are onstage trying to move the story forward.
Nonetheless, and balancing out the disappointing elements, there are ample pleasures to be had, courtesy of both the powerfully talented young cast and, of course, the glories of the score. Powell’s Tony has an almost cherubic youthfulness that makes both his impulsiveness and the depth of his yearning for Maria acutely truthful. And Shereen Pimentel’s Maria has a matching freshness, exuding a softly radiant sense of discovery, but also, crucially, an inherent emotional maturity that even Tony lacks — with tragic consequences, of course.
In the other major roles, Amar Ramasar, the charismatic New York City Ballet dancer who appeared last season in “Carousel” (and who now has been the focus of weekly protests outside the theater), brings a brooding intensity to his performance as Maria’s brother Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks gang. Yesenia Ayala fires up the feistiness as Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita. The singing throughout is superb, as is the sumptuous-sounding orchestra under the baton of music director Alexander Gemignani.
Some significant innovations are inspired. Lovers of the score may lament the loss of “I Feel Pretty,” the ebullient solo from a love-struck Maria that traditionally opens the second act. Here there is no second act — the show runs a taut, intermissionless hour and 45 minutes – and the song is cut. Sondheim has previously expressed dissatisfaction with the lyrics in this song, but its joyous tone also interrupts the musical’s steady march toward its dark ending. Now that hiccup is gone, resulting in a more headlong sense of impending disaster. The witty song “America” has been changed from an argument between the Puerto Rican girlfriends of the Sharks to a verbal duel between the women and their men, an update suggesting that, in today’s world, women are more assertive in expressing their opinions to men.
Among the more puzzling of van Hove’s inventions are the curtains of rain that suddenly descend midway through the production, virtually flooding the stage. A metaphor for the dark fate slowly enveloping the characters? Quite possibly, but here, as with the virtually omnipresent videography, distraction itches at you, as you watch the performers slopping through the spray, hoping nobody takes an unplanned tumble.
Perhaps most consequentially, and for some perhaps controversially (if not, again, distractingly), the Jets are no longer an all-white gang in conflict with the all-Puerto Rican Sharks. While the actors playing the Sharks are virtually all Latino (or could pass for Puerto Rican), the racial makeup of the Jets is thoroughly mixed and at least half African-American, with the gang leader Riff played with a fine pugnaciousness by the black actor Dharon E. Jones.
While some might grumble (I heard disgruntled murmurs when leaving the theater), with the cast now largely made up of people of color, the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks acquires a fresh, contemporary resonance and relevance. These young men and women are living in a world where oppression from a white-dominated culture is a force they cannot easily fight; the tragedy extends beyond the doomed romance at the tale’s center. With the real targets of their frustration — the racism and limited opportunities faced by people of color in the underclass — impossible to fight, these kids are doomed to take their anger out on each other, with deadly results.
“West Side Story” opened at the Broadway Theatre on Thurs., Feb. 20, 2020.
Creative: Entire Original Production Directed and Choreographed by Jerome Robbins; Book by Arthur Laurents; Based on a Conception by Jerome Robbins; Music by Leonard Bernstein; Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Directed by Ivo van Hove; Choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker; Scenic Design by Jan Versweyveld; Costume Design by An D’Huys; Lighting Design by Jan Versweyveld; Sound Design by Tom Gibbons; Video Design by Luke Halls.
Producers: Scott Rudin, Barry Diller, David Geffen, Eli Bush, Adam Rodner and James L. Nederlander.
Cast: Shereen Pimentel, Isaac Powell, Yesenia Ayala, Dharon E. Jones, Amar Ramasar, Marissa Brown, Gabi Campo, Elijah A. Carter, Adolfo Mena Cejas, Daniel Ching, Lorna Courtney, Marc Crousillat, Stephanie Crousillat, Roman Cruz, Kevin Csolak, Alexa De Barr, Israel Del Rosario, Tyler Eisenreich, Marlon Feliz, Satori Folkes-Stone, Zuri Noelle Ford, Ui-Seng François, Carlos E. Gonzalez, Jennifer Gruener, Jacob Guzman, Matthew Johnson, Michaela Marfori, Michelle Mercedes, Daniel Oreskes, Pippa Pearthree, Gus Reed, Thomas Jay Ryan, Ahmad Simmons, Corey John Snide, Sheldon True, Ricky Ubeda, Madison Vomastek, Danny Wolohan and Kevin Zambrano.