‘West Side Story’ Broadway review: Radical revival is a triumph
It feels pretty . . . different.
A galvanizing new revival of “West Side Story” opened Thursday night on Broadway, minus some familiar sights and sounds. Jerome Robbins’ legendary choreography has been Jet-tisoned along with the “Somewhere” ballet, and Maria’s chirpy “I Feel Pretty” was given the ax. There’s no longer an intermission, with the musical now running a breakneck one hour and 45 minutes.
Instead, in Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s finger-snapping-free staging, there’s a gigantic video wall behind a mostly spare stage, modern clothes and a ferocity not seen since the musical’s 1957 premiere, when The Post’s Richard Watts Jr. called it the story of “the ugliness and horror of a war to the death between the boys.” With that in mind, van Hove’s visceral take is spot-on for 2020. As long as kids are still being born into a “lousy” world, “West Side Story” shouldn’t be a trip down memory lane — it should be raw and real.
By pushing back against what we remember from the Oscar-winning 1961 film, a musical that many can recite line-by-line becomes newly suspenseful and gripping. It’s still the “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired story of Tony (Isaac Powell) of the Jets gang, and Maria (Shereen Pimentel), the sister of the rival Sharks gang leader, Bernardo (Amar Ramasar). The couple meets during a dance at the gym and, at great risk to themselves, fall in love. But every step in this well-worn plot comes as a startling surprise, starting with the gangs themselves.
As we watch during Leonard Bernstein’s booming “Prologue,” when a camera pans across the cast’s faces, the racially specific animus (Puerto Ricans versus the Polish and Irish) is largely gone. It’s still there in Arthur Laurents’ book and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, but in an effort to reflect modern-day New York and its evolving conflicts, the casting is totally diverse — and devastatingly young.
At first, van Hove’s vision can be discombobulating. Doc’s drugstore, a kind-of truce zone for the Sharks and Jets, has been turned from a friendly ’50s soda counter into a fluorescently lit corner bodega. A video camera explores the shop as if it’s an indie film set: Squint and you can spot a can of Ajax in the back. As the gangs make plans for a deadly rumble, I couldn’t help but think of the horrific 2018 gang slaying of a 15-year-old boy at a Bronx bodega. The whole production pulses with such relevance: Just wait till you see the blood-soaked “Somewhere.”
Chances are, the closest you’ve come to seeing a production of this musical without Robbins’ original moves is at a high school that couldn’t quite nail them. But now we have Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s more modern dances, which toss aside grace for youthful clumsiness and anger. There’s still some Latin flair — the teens yell “mambo!” after all, not “Isadora Duncan!” — but it’s not showstopping stuff.
What the less-imposing dance and van Hove’s camera close-ups do is enable richer characters, especially the young lovers. The extraordinary Powell makes the most moving, motivated and emotionally turbulent Tony you’re likely to have seen. His golden-voiced “Maria” is Mountain Dew-inflected, with a teen’s energy and squirmy awkwardness, and the “Tonight” duet with his Maria, an affecting Pimentel, is a serene stunner. You can feel the show’s amped up angst through Ramasar’s brooding Bernardo during the rainy rumble.
Revisionism is nothing new on Broadway. Sam Mendes did it in 1998 with his sexed-up “Cabaret” and John Doyle did it in 2005 with his dressed-down “Sweeney Todd.” The latest was Daniel Fish’s “Oklahoma!”, which pushed aside that show’s happy spirit for judgy politics. But as strange and new as this “West Side Story” may appear, van Hove’s production has the utmost respect for the original.
It’s still the show you love, reinvented for the time in which you live.
Source : Johnny Oleksinski Link