What’s most remarkable about Ivo van Hove’s shake-up of West Side Story is, for all the Belgian director’s ruinous choices – chief among them, an overabundance of distracting video projections – he doesn’t completely ruin what’s most thrilling about this 63-year-old musical updating of Romeo and Juliet. Leonard Bernstein’s music remains a miracle of melody and mood, rendered glorious by a 25-piece orchestra with orchestrations by the legendary 81-year-old Jonathan Tunick. If much of the singing doesn’t especially stand out in this production, Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel as the star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria give us what we need: They offer powerful evidence why the songs they sing — “Maria,” “Tonight,” “One Hand/One Heart” and “Somewhere” – are not just universally beloved; they can still make you cry.
For aficionados of West Side Story, there are many other, less salutary reasons to get emotional.
Some of the changes were widely announced in advance, but that doesn’t make them less jarring. The musical has been cut to 100 minutes with no intermission, which is almost an hour shorter than the last Broadway revival of the musical, in 2009. Both “I Feel Pretty” and the “Somewhere” ballet have been eliminated.
The cuts, van Hove has said, are intended to make the show “a juggernaut,” a reasonable aspiration in a more impatient era than the one in which the musical was originally forged by the once-in-a-lifetime team of Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, and Jerome Robbins, who conceived the show and both directed and choreographed the original.
Robbins’s instantly recognizable choreography, including the trademark finger-snapping, has been replaced by the work of Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker making her Broadway debut with lots of somersaults and movement vaguely suggesting boxing and martial arts. Her work is given an un-credited assist by a couple of consulting choreographers and the dancers themselves, who reportedly sought to add some Latin moves into the mix.
Rather than the familiar athletic beginning, the cast members enter in a line staring at the audience, while one by one video projects close ups of each tough tattooed face on a 30-feet-tall LED screen at the back of the stage
At one point in “Tonight,” oddly, Tony runs around Maria in a circle, supposedly a sign of falling in love, but it seems closer to the moves of a toddler at play. Even more noticeable: The famous “balcony scene” has no balcony, not even a fire escape; Tony and Maria sing mostly rolling around on the floor.
None of these changes are especially outrageous. Not every revival need be a slavish reproduction, and, as if in compensation for what’s subtracted, there are some added touches that make us look at the story freshly. There are moments, for example, that strike me as homoerotic, such as Tony’s conversations with his friend Riff (Dharon E. Jones), leader of the Jets, which are so close it looks as if they are about to kiss, and less subtly a scene of shirtless Sharks gathered under a pouring rain. The song “Somewhere” (“There’s a place for us/Somewhere a place for us) features the cast paired up, including into same-sex couples, underneath a hopeful sunset.
But so much of this West Side Story involves choices that are at best insufficiently thought through, or, worse, nearly autonomic avant-garde affectations of the sort that we’ve seen many times before.
An example of the former: This West Side Story is set in the present day, made clear by An D’Huys fashionably torn costumes and Andrew Sotomayor’s overly generous tattoos. This makes the story narratively incoherent in a whole host of ways, not the least of which is the absence of Puerto Rican gangs in 21st century New York, and the complete absence of any New Yorker anywhere saying (if they ever did) “Daddyo” and “buddy boy,” as the characters still do in this musical.
And then take the opening, where the cast stares. This instantly reminded me of a similar moment in Jagged Little Pill, where the young cast members stand in a row at the lip of the stage, singing anthem-like with the sort of super serious stares that seem an adolescent specialty, branding them as hip.
This is van Hove’s fourth production on Broadway; the others have been his stage adaptation of the movie “Network,” plus his interpretations of two plays by Arthur Miller, “The Crucible,” and “A View from the Bridge“ which marked his Broadway debut in 2015. But, as I pointed out in a review of a recent book about the director, van Hove has been bringing his norm-breaking – and video-making – to Off-Broadway for almost a quarter of a century, primarily at New York Theatre Workshop. I’ve seen about a dozen of them. Some, like Scenes from a Marriage at NYTW in 2014, and The Damned at the Park Avenue Armory in 2018, I’ve found astonishing. Others, like his Dutch-language production of Angels in America in 2014 and The One Who Disappeared in 2019, both at BAM, felt tone-deaf or inaccessible.
What almost all of them have in common is an emphasis on the visual, especially video. All but one of his four Broadway productions and almost all of his Off-Broadway ones have included a video design as part of the initial conception of the show.
At its best, the video in West Side Story allows us to see the facial expressions of the performers while their comparatively tiny bodies go about their business on stage in real time, and brings us inside three spaces that we can’t easily see from our seats – Doc’s drugstore hangout for the Jets and the sweatshop hangout for the Sharks because they’re created as alcoves that slide open and shut on the back wall of the stage, Anita’s apartment because it doesn’t exist on stage at all (it’s reportedly created out of a fourth floor backstage dressing room.)
But so much of the video in van Hove’s production is so bad that it detracts and literally distracts from what’s good about the show. To pick an egregious example, the song “America” (“I want to live in America”) is accompanied by a carousel of slides that an unimaginative tourist might put as his screen savers – of tropical beaches, and housing projects, and the U.S. and Puerto Rican flags flying side by side. Meanwhile, down below on the stage, the ensemble is working hard in one of the most energetic dance numbers in the show; why must we work to pay attention to them?
Similarly, “Tonight (Quintet”) is accompanied by a montage so overloaded with images, at least a dozen at any one time on the screen, that the song feels muddled.
Even worse are the videos accompanying “Officer Krupke,” surely the most misguided number in the show – a series of severe dark images of police brutality, including a street corner memorial for a slain black man. The images destroy the pointed sardonic humor of the lyrics for the sake of a misplaced heavy-handedness that feels like something an out-of-touch European would think up to demonstrate how politically aware he is.
But even the less intrusive backdrops – a dark street with a moving elevated subway train in the background – don’t work as well as the rare, blessed moments when there’s no discernible video at all and the undivided center of attention is where it belongs, on the performers.
An observation about the cast: There are more than 40 performers, most of whom are making their Broadway debuts. It’s a multiracial cast, with as many African-Americans as Caucasians who are portraying members of the Jets. This is yet another way the narrative has been made incoherent, since the story is supposed to be about ethnic tension between rival gangs. This is one suspension of disbelief I am willing to make, because, first, van Hove might be making a point about the absurdity of racial animosity, but also because there is something refreshing about the presence of these young, agile, talented newcomers. Much has been made of the hiring of Amar Ramasar as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, which has been met with protesting picketers because he was accused of sharing naked pictures of female dancers with fellow male dancers at the New York City Ballet.
I’m not sure why the producers went out of their way to hire this performer, who was such a wonderful presence in the recent revival of Carousel, but here gets little opportunity to showcase his virtuosic dancing, and whose acting and singing are little more than perfunctory. But I felt a somewhat similar bafflement throughout this West Side Story towards nearly all of the members of the cast, whose talents seemed misused, undermined, or at least not fully unleashed. It’s as if they were trapped, but not in the harsh world as it exists, but rather wholly inside the imagination of a director who seems to see them as formidably fashionable models in a riveting music video.
West Side Story is on stage at the Broadway Theater (1681 Broadway New York, NY, between 52nd and 53rd Street.)
West Side Story
Based on a conception by Jerome Robbins; Book by Arthur Laurents; Music by Leonard Bernstein; Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker; Directed by Ivo van Hove. Scenic and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld, costume design by An D’Huys, sound design by Tom Gibbons, video design by Luke Halls, orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, musical director Alexander Gemignani. Makeup and tattoo design by Andrew Sotomayor. Featuring in the cast Yesenia Ayala, Gabi Campo, Daniel Ching, Lorna Courtney, Marc Crousillat, Stephanie Crousillat, Roman Cruz, Kevin Csolak, Alexa De Barr, Israel Del Rosario, Jordan Dobson, Tyler Eisenreich, Armando Eleazar, Marlon Feliz, Satori Folks-Stone, Zuri Noelle Ford, Constance Francois, Carlos Gonzalez, Jennifer Gruener, Jacob Guzman, Matthew Johnson, Dharon E. Jones, Jarred Manista, Michaela Marfori, Dan Oreskes, Pippa Pearthree, Shereen Pimentel, Isaac Powell, Amar Ramasar, Michelle Russell, Thomas Jay Ryan, Michael Seltzer, Ahmad Simmons, Corey John Snide, Sheldon True, Ricky Ubeda, Madison Vomastek, Tony Ward, Bridget Whitman, Danny Wolohan and Kevin Zamrano. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell