Ivo van Hove's 'West Side Story' Captivates and Confuses

by Matthew Wexler

Friday February 21, 2020

The cast of "West Side Story."
The cast of "West Side Story."  (Source:Jan Versweyveld)

This review originally appeared on The Broadway Blog.

No snapping allowed.

Director Ivo van Hove's much-anticipated revival of "West Side Story," which opened tonight at the Broadway Theatre, strips much of its original creators' DNA with the force of a New York City street-sweeping truck. What rises from the gravel, while not totally cohesive, pulsates like a ticking time bomb, its ending an inevitable intersection of racism, ignorance, fear and teen angst.

Jerome Robbins originally conceived "West Side Story" as a modern re-telling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. After much retooling with collaborators Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book), the musical opened on Broadway in 1957, described by the New York Times' theater critic Brooks Atkinson as "facile and a little forbidding." Van Hove's multi-sensory experience includes the use of both pre-recorded and live video feed projected onto an expansive floor-to-rafter video panel, moving the dial on "West Side Story" into the 21st century. At its heart, "West Side Story"'s timeless themes emerge, sometimes in synch with van Hove's vision and, at others, despite it.

It's been a month since Tony (Isaac Powell) has shrugged off the Jets, a gang that Laurents described as "an anthology of what is called 'American'" and that van Hove has cast as multi-cultural but likely second-generation American. The motley group, led by Riff (Dharon E. Jones) has one thing in common: they were here first — at least compared to the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang led by Bernardo (Amar Ramasar), struggling to find a foothold in a city where even its protectors like Lieutenant Schrank (Thomas Jay Ryan), derogatorily refer to them as "spics" and "half-breeds."

Riff convinces Tony to join the gang at a dance at a local gym, where they plan on confronting the Sharks. Sparks fly when Tony sets his eyes on Maria (Shereen Pimentel), Bernardo's younger sister newly arrived from Puerto Rico. Their connection quickly shifts from flirtatious to palpable, setting into motion a series of events that eventually stain the city streets with blood.

Dharon E. Jones in "West Side Story."
Dharon E. Jones in "West Side Story."  (Source: Jan Versweyveld)

Though losing the 1958 Tony Award for Outstanding Musical to "The Music Man," Robbins and "West Side Story" were acknowledged with an award for Outstanding Choreography. His unrestrained movement (in collaboration with Peter Gennaro) has become synonymous with subsequent revivals and regional productions. Van Hove was granted permission to reimagine the work, turning to Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker for the formidable task.

"It's like a battlefield and you have to behave like a general," said De Keersmaeker in an interview for 60 Minutes. Her troop — a cast of fifty from around the world — have been put through the paces and suffered casualties. Injuries delayed opening night, forcing Ben Cook (originally cast as Riff) to leave the production. Sergio Trujillo ("Ain't Too Proud") was brought in to consult and address the Sharks' movement per the cast's request. "Real identity politics had entered into the production's theatrical identity politics, creating tensions that had to be resolved through dance," wrote Sasha Weiss for the New York Times. The results will likely polarize theatergoers as much as last season's stark reimagining of "Oklahoma!".

De Keersmaeker's work references modern dance icons such as Merce Cunningham with its retooled riffs on classical ballet, as well as masculine bravado that emerged from the likes of Ted Shawn. Despite this production's fleeting contemporary timestamp, there's little hip-hop, popping or locking to be seen. While athletic, energized and impeccably executed by the extraordinary company, rarely do De Keersmaeker's dancers become unbridled. The exception being the final moments of "Gee, Officer Krupke," which slows to a raging protest under the musical direction of Alexander Gemignani, punctuated with a kind of deliberate krumping that pummels through the theatre.

After all the tumult, it's unclear what Trujillo may have contributed (uncredited in the program) to the "Dance at the Gym" or "America," the latter now staged as it was reworked for the 1961 film with the entirety of the Sharks, led by Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita (Yesenia Ayala), and her female entourage defending their place in America to Bernardo and his gang's critical response. Glimmers of salsa, rumba and merengue fleetingly appear, but De Keersmaker eclipses much of these styles' signature hip action, stripping away the very identity that the Sharks are fighting to hold onto.

(l to r) Shereen Pimentel and Isaac Powell in "West Side Story."
(l to r) Shereen Pimentel and Isaac Powell in "West Side Story."  (Source: Jan Versweyveld)

Van Hove has tightened "West Side Story" into an intermissionless hour and 45 minutes, leaving behind Maria's "I Feel Pretty" (originally appearing at the beginning of Act II) in which she excitedly prepares to meet Tony, unaware of the double murder that has just taken place; and the "Somewhere" ballet — a dream world described by Laurents as "a world of space and air and sun... no sides, no hostility now; just joy and pleasure and warmth."

The sun never rises in van Hove's world. Spanning just over a day from dusk until the following morning (skipping the daylight hours), it is Tony, huddled on the ground and enveloping Maria in a protective cocoon, who now sings "Somewhere." Sondheim's lyrics, dampened by a storm that cracks open upon the fighting gangs, no longer evoke optimism. "There's a time for us, a time and place for us," echos with tragic futility.

Powell, 25 years old and with one Broadway credit ("Once On This Island"), is a veteran among a cast with 33 performers making their Broadway debuts. His Tony carries much of the emotional heavy-lifting, striking a delicate balance among friend, lover and social advocate. Powell's voice soars with a crooning vibrato reminiscent of the production's mid-century origin, accompanied by loose-limbed exuberance, exemplified as he phonetically orgasms upon learning Maria's name.

As his star-crossed lover, Pimentel is more spitfire than wide-eyed ingenue. The effortless soprano recalls a young Audra McDonald (perhaps a "Master Class" revival is in order), bringing a modern sensibility to Maria. Together, the couple reminds one of the countless high school students seen on the New York City streets when class lets out mid-afternoon, grappling and kissing and teasing one another as they inch their way toward the subway.

The rest of the cast — and there are many — fall into the adequate but not extraordinary, perhaps because so much visual stimulation makes it difficult to keep track of who's who. Ayala and Ramasar as Anita and Bernardo, both terrific dancers, move through the paces but neither leap off the page. Jones, stepping into the role of Riff, also appears most comfortable when he's dancing.

Surprisingly, Jacob Guzman's Chino, Bernardo's friend and final assailant in the trifecta of murders, surfaces as the most threatening of the Sharks, becoming unhinged after a street fight leaves the leaders of both gangs dead. A live video feed, filmed in one of the theatre's dressing rooms that now serves as Maria's bedroom, captures Guzman's wild-eyed rage, a terrifying tipping point with deadly consequences.

Video designer Luke Halls drives van Hove's vision, creating a visual landscape that at different points supports, accentuates, dominates and occasionally diminishes the onstage action. A real-time horizontal close-up pan of the Jets replaces those missing snaps in the prologue, dissolving into onstage action as the Sharks enter.

Video also captures scenic and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld's upstage drugstore and sweatshop locales. But when the action spills off-camera, the juxtaposition of a giant-sized cinematic Tony singing "Something's Coming" versus the thumbnail version inching toward the audience unnecessarily distracts from Bernstein's rhythmic and melodic momentum. Other times, the footage skews like a documentary short film, such as during "Gee, Officer Krupke" with shots of the border wall and later the Puerto Rican flag with the phrase Se Levanta (meaning "rise up," a call to action that emerged post-Hurricane Maria).

Versweyveld's lighting mostly captures the bleak night, with primary saturation of blue (Jets) and red (Sharks) during the dance at the gym. It feels a bit didactic, particularly in combination with An D'Huys' color-coded costume design, which goes off the rails, nodding to the late 50s with varsity-cut jackets and cigarette pants, along with what looks like a grab bag from the Macy's sales rack. But when the shirts shed and the gang members face-off, something transformative happens.

A wash of yellow bathes the stage. The color reflects in the torrential rain and bounces off the flesh, creating eerie neutrality as Jets, Sharks, Black, White, Latin and every other representation becomes a moving amoeba of wrath and fear.

Fear that when the blood stops running, we will have to reconcile that we are more alike than different. And it will be too late.

"West Side Story"
Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway, NYC

Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog's editor. His culture writing has appeared in Dramatics Magazine and on TDF Stages and ShowTickets.com. Matthew is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a past fellowship recipient from The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Critics Institute. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.

The Broadway Blog is an arts and culture site dedicated to Broadway and beyond. Daily content includes reviews of Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional productions; interviews with performers and creators, as well as breaking news from the theater community. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.