Isaac Powell, Shereen Pimentel and the cast of WEST SIDE STORY – Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
Love looms large, as large and wide as that huge screen that encompasses the whole width and height of the Broadway Theatre’s back wall where director Ivo van Hove (West End’s All About Eve) has powerfully and dramatically staged his modern uptake of West Side Story. Gone is the 1950’s time frame that the original production was firmly rooted in, and with thrilling athleticism overpowering the balletic concept that was embraced by director/choreographer Jerome Robbins back in 1957, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker (Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich) has developed an aggressive style of movement that plays homage to Robbins, but spins out with a younger modern vibe that is both electric and combative. Together they enlarge the drama with a political activist stance that almost matches what is being projected with a grand filmatic style on the wall behind them all.
The images, constructed by video designer Luke Halls (NT’s The Lehman Trilogy), pull us in almost immediately with the opening lineup. We see the hard faces, in police mug shot-style, where the dividing lines are clearly drawn before us. We dive headfirst into the barren streets where this racial conflict will rumble outwards into violence and death. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, we all know how this war will end, regardless of what weaponry is being called for. Shifting the time frame to the present only adds more violent tension to the mix, as this is the ‘here and now’, and we are all too aware of the dangers of being a person of color on the streets of America, especially under the banner of police brutality and a troubling racial divide.
Riff, the leader of the Jets, portrayed with a muscular rawness by Dharon E. Jones (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt“) stands nose to nose with his enemy Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, portrayed by the sensual and exciting Amar Ramasar (principal dancer with the New York City Ballet). Their animosity is palpable, and even with a number of songs being shuffled around or cut (I don’t know the stage show vs the movie that well to be sure of anything except that Sondheim’s least favorite song, “I Feel Pretty” is thankful removed, as it would not have fit at all in the grittiness of the night), the show flies forward with a speed and energy matched only by the magnificence of the dancers involved. In reading about the original production, Robbins worked hard to elevate the conflict, posting articles about gang warfare on the bulletin board and keeping the cast members who played the Sharks and the Jets separated throughout the rehearsal period. Robbins was said to be striving towards a gritty realism from his sneaker- and jeans-clad cast giving the ensemble more freedom than your typical Broadway dancer to interpret their roles with a unique individuality, treating the dancers like actors instead of just choreographed bodies moving in unison. I’m not sure that concept melted its way into this compelling production as the characters seemed more like two united competing forces, rather than individual characters. They are more like parts of two larger bodies that move with a strength and defiance that is breathtakingly dynamic, authentic, but not individualistic.
The wall breaks open, soon after, and we are finally gifted with the presence of the young, handsome Tony, magnificently voiced and embodied by Isaac Powell (Broadway’s Once on This Island). He is working away inside the corner store owned by Doc, touchingly portrayed by Daniel Oreskes (Broadway’s Oslo), breathing life into this complex character and setting the stage for tragedy that awairs. The interior is only really visible on the large screen, which is both dramatic in size, but oddly and unfortunately makes Tony seem so small in comparison when he steps out onto the actual stage. His voice is truly beautiful and engaging, filling us with his passion and heart each and every time he is given the reins to go forth. His gesturing is repetitive and awkward, but when he sings about “Something Coming” and of the lovely “Maria“, his vocals carry us and we can’t help but be enthralled.
Maria, portrayed by the exquisitely voiced Shereen Pimentel (Encores’ Road Show) is his match made in “Somewhere” heaven. It takes a minute to dive into her though, as her introduction is also within the confines of an interior sweatshop that can’t quite be made out in real world staging, with Anita, lovingly portrayed by the exciting Yesenia Ayala (Broadway’s Carousel) at her dressmaking side. The white party dress, as designed by costume designer An D’Huys (Broadway’s Network), is not as thrilling as all the other flashy outfits that electrify the other ladies, but it certainly makes her stand out on that beautifully orchestrated video shot from above as the dance gets underway. The costumes for the young Maria are almost too innocent and plain, especially when compared to her pack of Puerto Rican sisters, more noticeable as we make our way into the community gym for the dance. Chaperoned by the wonderful fun Glad Hand, hilariously portrayed by Pippa Pearthree (Broadway’s Tuck Everlasting), the dance scene is where the music by Leonard Bernstein (On The Town), with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (Sunday in the Park…) and music supervision and direction by Alexander Gemignani (RTC/Fiasco’s Merrily We Roll Along), truly gets revved up and rolling.
On that bare bones stage, crafted by set and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld (Ivo van Hove’s The Damned), with a solid sound design by Tom Gibbons (West End’s Home, I’m Darling), the dance surges powerful forward like opposing armies, with the actual tug of war ending it all. That moving tableaux is on the nose symbolically adding a tension that is hard to ignore or fight. The video shots fire up the dance scenes like shots of adrenaline, but in the more intimate or emotional moments, like “A Boy Like That” hidden out of view and only seen projected large, the distancing make it hard to engage with these moments. It makes the actors actual presence feel tiny in comparison or just removed. This was particularly jarring with “Cool“, as I had a hard time noticing and paying attention to Riff and the Jets singing and dancing up an aggressive storm. My eyes kept wandering up to the larger than life women filmed inside the drug store doing not so much of importance, but hard to ignore. I wish Ivo van Hove had more faith in his performers and their performances on stage to let us experience them physically rather than filmatically, as the large presentation distract and distances us from what is going on out front. The edited book by Arthur Laurents (Gypsy) seems leaner and more intense, particularly within the ominous presence of Lt. Schrank, dutifully portrayed by Thomas Jay Ryan (Broadway’s The Nap) and Officer Krupke, played menacingly by Danny Wolohan (Public’s The Low Road). The number devoted to the officer lifts up high and mighty beyond the original intent. In Ivo van Hove’s version, this comical song becomes a torchlight to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It hangs with an intensity that was not part of the original over the whole show adding a power and clarity of vision that is both disturbing and authentic.
It is the acid in the rain that dramatically falls on the tragedy winding up and around fiercely before our eyes. In it is the essence and the bleeding heart of the form, especially visceral when Anita tries to help Maria, but gets brutally attacked within the walls of Doc’s drug store. Ivo van Hove delivers that fire with aplomb, shattering the walls with a violence that stings. It’s not perfect, his filmatic formula, as I wish he’d return to his faith and trust in the stage, something he showcased with his reconstructions of “The Crucible” and his spectacular and intense “..View from the Bridge“, but the candor and inventiveness is well needed and his eye doesn’t fail to deliver. I still must admit I missed Rita Moreno, her purple dress, and her “America” performance, but the energy of van Hove’s cast and crew light up the stage with smoke and fire that can’t be denied or ignored. That hypnotic rain can’t extinguish the flames of an America in trouble, even when it doesn’t fully deliver the emotionality of a love denied and lost in the end.
For more, go to frontmezzjunkies.com