West Side Story: Ill-fated Passion Burns Anew
Calm down, everyone: the new Broadway production of West Side Story is just fine… better than fine.
Ever since the news broke a while back that West Side Story would receive a new Broadway production, questions and skepticism simmered. How would the Belgian team of Ivo van Hove (director), Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (choreographer), and Jan Versweyveld (designer) handle this treasure of American musical theater and the American immigrant story it tells? (Implied: how dare they?) The 1957 Broadway production West Side Story (original concept by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents) is one of those iconic musicals that resists a major revamping—not the songs, nor Robbins’s indelible choreography. Never mind that West Side Story is itself an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The story, in brief, follows two lovers from rival New York gangs, unable to escape the blood feud, who meet tragic circumstances.
While the new production largely leaves the music alone, De Keersmaeker has entirely redone the dances. She is a masterful and internationally respected choreographer, but her lack of commercial projects alone raised eyebrows when she signed on to West Side Story. Her existing repertory comprises a breadth of unique substyles, which can include the use of accumulations and repetitions, and ranges in quality from analytical, expressionistic, musical, and monastic—all seemingly in stark contrast to the jazzy naturalism of Robbins. But De Keersmaeker has always been a master of patterning and formations, and in West Side Story she draws on a staple: movement in a circle, evoking both the passage of time and cyclonic weather systems. The two rival gangs prowl the stage in a broad gyre. As the Sharks and Jets leer at one another, they periodically surround a dueling pair, focusing and closing in on them like a tornado funnel. De Keersmaeker is also known for speedy cross-stage propulsions, flying stag leaps, slashing limbs, and knee slides, put to good use in the show’s many rumbles and social dances.
As Maria, the charming and ebullient Shereen Pimentel’s operatic voice matches the soaring range her role requires. (I felt for Yesenia Ayala as Anita, who sang a duet with Pimentel, and whose voice and range are more Broadway than opera.) Isaac Powell’s sweet-voiced Tony (short for Anton, of Polish descent) comes across as an everyman nice guy, but not as memorable as either Riff (Dharon E. Jones, a charismatic leader) or Bernardo (a fierce Amar Ramasar).
The ill-fated romance between Maria and Tony provides another unforgettable stage image. Their respective gangs tell the love-struck pair that they must leave, literally pulling them apart, but through the strength of their bond, the lovers strain to draw close for one more kiss, pulling with them the literal weight of their kin. Jan Versweyveld’s inventive set leaves the stage free of props by creating mini-locations upstage, embedded within the cyclorama, and revealed by sliding panels—Doc’s drugstore and a garment sweatshop, in addition to Maria’s apartment, which exists up a twisting staircase off of stage left.
Van Hove has pioneered and developed the use of video and multiple screens in live theater, and here has advanced it yet again. His signature use of video feed from stationary and performer-held minicams permit insider views into these micro sets, projected with remarkable crispness onto a gigantic screen the same area as the stage (video design by Luke Halls). The drugstore interior recedes out of sight, but ingeniously, we see the action through the closed circuit feed. The stage is constructed of rust-hued and darkly variegated panels whose seams permit smoke to rise from below, as if the ground might burst open, and water to drain in the final rain-drenched scenes. The set’s effect conjures that odd urban feeling of simultaneously existing in a completely constructed environment while being at the mercy of nature.
During many scenes, background footage of New York streets screens. Taken from a slowly advancing viewpoint, these rain-soaked urbanscapes are devoid of lifeforms and vehicles. This clever solution provides an atmospheric and ominous, if fairly neutral, backdrop to the onstage action. When Tony’s life potentially changes with the epiphany of love, told in the song “Tonight,” the video imagery turns a literal and metaphorical street corner. At other times, panning video close-ups of the performers appeared, like in the opening sequence when the Sharks (also called PRs, as in Puerto Ricans) line the stage apron and we see them united as a gang, but also onscreen as individuals.
And make no mistake, these individuals are a sea change from the original show and movie casts, in which white people played Puerto Ricans and jazzed up street movement with snaps and pirouettes. Here, nearly all people of color, with stage make-uped tattoos designed by Andrew Sotomayor and prominently displayed in limb-baring costumes by An D’Huys, move fluently in street gestures and playful vernacular that wordlessly convey states of mind. The four adults—gatekeepers and rulemakers—are white, and hopelessly square. One of the serious weaknesses in the show centers on the song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” with its dated, slapstick demeanor. The attempt to modernize it by showing video clips of the penal system, from arrests through trials, fell short. It wouldn’t be missed if it were cut, as was “I Feel Pretty.”
Other contemporary political references pop up. In “America,” shots of idyllic Puerto Rico evolve into scenes of the southern border wall as it runs into the ocean; the dancers point their fingers like guns, raising them into fists. In a searing scene, while trying to warn Tony that Maria is in danger, Anita is assaulted in the drugstore by the Jets, a reminder that sexual abuse is prevalent and gang ties run deep. Here, real life bleeds into fiction: outside the theater pre-show, protesters chanted against Ramasar; as a principal at New York City Ballet, he shared lewd photos of a woman without her permission, and was fired and reinstated.
This production demonstrates that a musical with a solid foundation can be made absolutely relevant for new audiences, and that some stories remain timeless. Robbins’ contributions and choreography in the original versions will forever be treasured, but De Keersmaeker has provided powerful, contemporary new dances that shine.