During its long gestation in previews, Ivo van Hove’s bold re-imagining of “West Side Story” generated the kind of heated division normally reserved for presidential politics in a year with Donald Trump.
Controversy was stoked by the jettisoning of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, the excision of “I Feel Pretty” from the score and the explosion of video in a production that some said threatened to turn the stage into cinema. How dare this Belgian auteur barge onto Broadway and tamper in his arty European way with an American musical landmark.
Also, what does Van Hove know about ethnic gangs in midcentury New York or the Latino experience? (Never mind that the tale, a riff on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” was created by four gay and bisexual Jewish guys, who weren’t exactly experts on violence in the ‘hood.)
There was additionally some static on the wires about the casting of the white ethnic Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks with a blended multicultural ensemble. Apparently, Broadway literalists need a strict division between white and brown to keep the story straight.
No, the early word was neither enlightening nor encouraging. But now that critics have finally entered the “West Side Story” fray, let me declare that I am firmly in Van Hove’s camp on this one.
I didn’t expect to be. Long ago, I was enthralled by Van Hove’s deconstructions of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Henrik Ibsen at New York Theatre Workshop. But since this iconoclastic director won a Tony for his staging of “A View From the Bridge,” he has been operating less like a daring artisan than a factory for a multinational company.
But this intrepid reworking of “West Side Story” marks more than a return to form for Van Hove. The production, which set its official opening for Thursday at the Broadway Theatre, restores the vitality to a musical that can seem ersatz and lumbering when treated like a museum piece.
Arthur Laurents, the show’s book writer, directed the last Broadway revival in 2009. It was a superficial update that called attention to the age of the musical in the way plastic surgery can exaggerate the ravages of time on a face.
With an engulfing video screen stretching across the back wall of a darkened and mostly bare set, Van Hove’s production looks like it was born in the 21st century. And galvanized by a diverse company, the staging has a youthful vigor unmatched since “Hamilton” stormed the gates of Broadway.
The choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has replaced Robbins’ ballet grammar with a dance language that is more streetwise in its stylish swagger. According to news reports, it has been jazzed up by Patricia Delgado and Sergio Trujillo, who were brought in to add more Latino flavor to the movement. But whatever the back story, the choreography is fresh, kinetic and, when not overly illustrative, transfixing.
When “West Side Story” arrived on Broadway in 1957, it inaugurated a sea change in the American musical. Not only was the subject matter (gang violence, racism, poverty) grittier than usual, but the fierce collision of artistic styles posed its own challenges to audiences.
Van Hove’s “West Side Story” jolts theatergoers with as much innovative force. The production, bounded by the scenic and lighting wizardry of Jan Versweyveld, resists easy assimilation. As absorbed as I was by the bombardment of sights and sounds, I was uncertain how to process a show that unfolds on different levels simultaneously.
A manic rivalry is set up between stage and screen, between live actors and video feed, and between the rapturous spectacle of bodies in motion and the closeups of faces in paroxysms of passion. Pockets are ingeniously carved out of the back wall screen to create Doc’s modern-day drugstore, where Tony works and the Jets gather, and the bridal shop, where Maria and Anita, the sister and the girlfriend of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo, toil and gossip.
The view into these realms is partial, but the action is cinematically projected to ensure that nothing significant is missed. Some theatergoers have complained that Van Hove has turned the Broadway Theatre into a movie palace, but this is inaccurate. The video technology is woven into a performance work that defies our usual vocabulary.
The term “multimedia” doesn’t do justice to Luke Halls’ video design, which moves frenetically from urban streetscape to blown-up stage tableau. The flow can be overwhelming. But images of a run-down New York neighborhood, a landscape as lonely and forbidding as an Edward Hopper painting, anchor the action in a reality that is more piercing than old fashioned stage realism.
As my eyes ping-ponged to keep up with all that was being presented, the tragedy was furtively working on my unconscious mind. The streamlining of the musical (performed without intermission in an electric one hour and 45 minutes) heightens the Aristotelian inexorability of the drama.
Robbins’ direction and choreography provided the glue that originally held the musical together. But as Van Hove’s production makes clear, it’s Leonard Bernstein’s music that emotionally melds the various ingredients into a theatrical sublimity.
Song, story and spectacle often seem at cross-purposes in Van Hove’s revival, but they miraculously fuse through an orchestral lushness that brings Tony and Maria’s ill-starred romance to crushing emotional life. Dazed and confused as I often felt by the kaleidoscopic staging, I was streaming tears by the blood-soaked end, in which Van Hove strategically deploys stillness to allow us to concentrate on the catastrophe before us.
How have I managed to avoid talking about the actors this deep into the review? My intention isn’t to slight the performers, but the beauty of the production lies in the totality of the vision. The ensemble is more important than any one member. And more striking than the characterizations is the visual poetry of the figures as they reveal themselves through movement.
Isaac Powell’s Tony is the geeky cute neighborhood kid with a dreamy smile who strides with a natural stylishness that, had fate been kinder, could have made him a star of the Milan runways. Shereen Pimentel’s Maria, the forbidden object of Tony’s desire, is a girl flowering into womanhood, with no more than a rowdy independent streak and An D’Huys’ dead-on costumes to define her.
Dharon E. Jones’ Riff, the leader of the Jets, has a tenderly affectionate bond with Tony that stands out amid all the masculine swagger and violence. Amar Ramasar’s Bernardo, the Sharks’ ruthless ringleader, has a menacing manner sharpened by the daily oppression of being Puerto Rican and poor.
Van Hove embeds the musical numbers, so that they don’t become occasions for star turns. Powell croons “Maria” with more sweetness than power, and though Pimentel has a more operatic range, when the two sing “Tonight” the feeling is too intimate to be show-stopping. “Somewhere” grows in power, but it’s the swell of Bernstein’s music that opens up the vision of a heaven so close yet so painfully far away.
The cracks in this world are illuminated through flashes of rage. Yesenia Ayala’s Anita conveys through her savage movement and singing the seething frustration of marginalized communities. The assault that happens to her as the musical careens toward its tragic climax is captured in all its brutality on the screen, and Ayala makes us feel the horror of the moment.
The “Gee, Officer Krupke” number is turned into a harrowing catalog of police brutality and mass incarceration. But the directorial approach is more often quick and pointed, as when a drone’s view of the border wall is momentarily projected.
The musical sadly hasn’t lost its thematic currency. Divisions are as vociferous today as they were in 1957. Reactions to this revival are likely to be even more polarized on artistic grounds. This “West Side Story” will not find much favor with traditionalists. But for those decrying the “cinematic” nature of the production, it bears reminding that Stephen Sondheim, the show’s lyricist, himself acknowledged that the musical’s fluid construction was partly inspired by the movies.
Perhaps this inherent filmic quality contributed to the show’s later success as an Oscar-winning movie musical. But I don’t admire this production simply for its artful infusion of screen technology. I adore this production for making me feel so deeply the tragic waste of innocent love in a society still festering in hate.