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West Side Story

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Ensemble, Dharon E. Jones and Amar Ramasar, center. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

West Side Story

                                                   By Fern Siegel

Director Ivo van Hove has reimagined West Side Story for a 2020 audience — and there are some genuinely powerful moments in the musical. The issue is the totality of his vision — and the result is mixed.

West Side Story is legendary for four reasons: Jerome Robbin’s choreography, Leonard Bernstein’s glorious score, Stephen Sondheim’s sassy, on-point lyrics and Arthur Laurents’ book, which updated Romeo and Juliet to Hell’s Kitchen in the Fifties, complete with social commentary on the alienation of urban youth.

Three of the four remain, but in a new interpretation that runs 1 hour, 45 minutes without intermission.

That’s a plus, given the breakneck speed of the action, which covers an intense 24-hour period in the lives of the Sharks and the Jets, rival street gangs fighting for a tiny piece of turf. The other is the performance of Isaac Powell as Tony, which is nothing short of a revelation. His voice is perfection; Powell owns the role, imbuing it with a youthful yearning and tenderness that is heart-wrenching to watch. Yesenia Ayala is also excellent as the fiery Anita; she commands attention just by a flick of her hair.

The action is twofold: The fight for gang supremacy and the love story between Tony and Maria (Shereen Pimentel), who has nixed the innocent 1950s Maria for a more assertive, sexually confident young woman. She, too, possesses a lovely voice and their duets, such as “Somewhere,” are exquisite. Amar Ramasar’s Bernardo and Dharon E. Jones’ Riff jointly ooze menace, which hits a more realistic note. 

That’s important to remember. This West Side Story isn’t the colorful cinematic 1961 version most fans know and love. Nor does it follow its song trajectory. “I Feel Pretty” has been dropped. It doesn’t fit a 21st-century version of woke Gen Zs. Also, “Cool” and  “Gee, Officer Krupke” have been repositioned, confusing the narrative. (It was ordered that way in the original production, but Sondheim and screenwriter Ernest Lehman vehemently disagreed with the result. By reversing the order in the film, the numbers offered more scathing commentary on the land of opportunity.)

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Ensemble, (Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel, center.)     Photos: Jan Versweyveld

In this rendition, unlike the original, tribalism isn’t an issue, since the gangs are multicultural. Yes, they still spew hate at each other, but it’s raw vitriol. One striking exception is the rendition of “America,” which is movingly rendered, accompanied by images of the wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. It brings home the tortured experience of immigrants in a visceral way that should move everyone in the audience.

But van Hove has also introduced some changes that, applied more judiciously, would have smartly updated this classic without upending it.

And it’s all about the staging. The action is divided between the stage, a huge open space, and a back wall of video projections, designed by Luke Halls. Some of the action takes place off-stage, inside an apartment or Doc’s store – with videos chronicling the performance. The result is distracting; the audience doesn’t know where to look. Videos can be effective to underscore specific moments, and at key moments, they do.

But the constant in-your-face images don’t always serve the performers, or the story arc, well. Neither do the videographers, who, dressed in black, follow the off-stage action with cameras. It’s disorienting rather than organic.

Yesenia Ayala and cast

Still, many of the performances and the dancing are solid. Choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker can’t hit Robbins’ level of electric lyricism, but she brings a different energy, an angular, staccato rhythm to the fractured lives, delivered by a talented ensemble.

The thematic thread, the alienation and hopelessness of inner-city kids, remains. And the tragedy of West Side Story, this version insists, will continue. Each disenfranchised urban generation will endure poverty, bigotry and death. That’s a sobering message. As a political reality, it rings true. But in artistic terms, van Hove’s execution falls short of the mark.

West Side Story, Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway
Running Time: 145 minutes. Tickets: