West Side Story based on a conception by Jerome Robbins with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein (orchestrations by Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal) and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim is a groundbreaking classic that garnered awards when it opened on Broadway in 1957 to a flurry of praise and glory. Its overwhelming success continued when it was made into the 1961 titular film winning 10 Academy Awards. Since then it has seen numerous global productions and has been revived on Broadway twice in 1980, and in 2009 with Spanish lyrics and dialogue weaved into the English Libretto.
Once again in revival directed by the maverick sensation Ivo Van Hove (Network, The Crucible) and choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, West Side Story has proven its timelessness with Van Hove highlighting its immutable themes. Van Hove’s direction sounds these thematic notes with his stylistic tuning fork to ping the deepest chords of human nature with which we must identify, as he explores the mortal boundaries of love, tribalism, power, bigotry, alienation, fear, self-loathing and hatred.
Van Hove’s modernization of West Side Story should not be underestimated. He unravels the underlying perils of “the outsider” theme that resonate with currency for us today. He gives this principal conceptualization a novel rendering by employing video projection (video design by Luke Halls) and the “close-up” to elicit an intimacy and connection with the characters not readily available before. The intimate portrayals of the Sharks and Jets (delivered by close-up) as well as their objectified view that encompasses their using the entire stage, reflects the insider and outsider viewpoint. In the intimate view these individuals are young men, hurting, afraid, alone. In the outsider view they are non-human, throw-away people who have embraced the world of criminality and violence because that gives them a rush of comfort in power and identity that the culture denies to them.
For example in the Prologue we meet in close-ups the key players: Riff (the fabulous Dharon E. Jones) of the Sharks, Bernardo (his marvelous equivalent Amar Ramasar) of the Jets, and their gang members. We note their proud and stalwart personas; they could be CEOs of a company in another time and place. We see their branding, the combat gear of their identities: their piercings, their haircuts, the intricacy of their tattoos. And beyond that as the camera pans the two tribes, we note their sneering bravado, their violence and something else behind their staring eyes-perhaps fear.
These Prologue close-ups in real time, before the tremendous opening number of the stylized, vigorous fight sequence in which a Jet is injured, humanize the erstwhile stereotyped ethnicity of the “Puerto Rican” Sharks and their urban, mixed race counterpart, the Jets. They appear interchangeable. Van Hove’s enlightened casting suggests they are not bonded by ethnicity since there are black, white, Latino members in both gangs, but by inner necessity. They cling to their tribe out of fear, isolation, alienation and the trauma of cultural self-loathing, of being outside, of being the “other.”
We especially note the need to belong in the “Jet Song” which answers the call to be a part of something “bigger” than oneself, even if it is bloodthirsty and destructive. By extension, the Sharks are mixed race and indistinguishable from the Jets except that they “came” from Puerto Rico.
With the exception of a few scenes and songs where the backdrop is black and a rainy mist falls down to perhaps symbolize the eternal/immutable/spiritual, the video design-both live and pre-recorded prevails throughout. The events are streamlined and strengthened. The arc of development moves over a two-day period and falls into the resolution we all know is coming, but still remains surprising and poignant. The song “I Feel Pretty” has been excised and the cut gives the musical an edgier, less digressive, less whimsical feel, which the song conveyed almost as an afterthought. That song in particular is off tenor with Van Hove’s dark vision of this lurid, scary world the gangs occupy, a vision which messages the nihilism of impoverished youth/citizens in this time of Trumpism, I.C.E., Black Lives Matter, The Wall, all of whose memes appear at various and pointed junctures in the production.
Thus, we note how the Sharks and Jets attempt to gain a position of power through violence to carve out a place where they can feel safe walking and being. Certainly, in the video projection of dark, lonely streets, a stylized version of the threatening landscape in each of the gang member’s minds, it is revealed that fear surrounds them and they must posture and swagger and image themselves into courage while inside they are cowering children.
For the Sharks, carving out a plot of land is acceptance in the country that views them as trash. As the cast sings “America” and the exceptional Yesenia Ayala as Anita and Amar Ramasar as Bernardo vocally duel out their positions for or against the US, Van Hove’s projections are pointed and riveting. These encompass haunting images of a damaged Puerto Rico left ripped and forgotten after the negligent response of the US to Hurricane Maria. The projections represent the truth; the dance number and song reveals the courage of Anita to hope and the realism of Bernardo to highlight the discrimination and bigotry of third and fourth generation citizens against them. Throughout, Van Hove uses the projections in juxtaposition with the staging to encourage a novel understanding of how the inner person and their outer image operates. We see the two perspectives- the truth and a presentation of the image that is hoped will help one survive in a forbidding city.
The clips of devastation of Puerto Rico are inter cut with various related video clips, one of the final ones referencing miles and miles of the wall at the southern border. The wall is the everpresent reminder that outsiders/illegals are potential thugs and criminals, regardless of their status as asylum seekers, regardless of their status as US citizens. Of course the irony, as Van Hove’s striking version indicates, through the attitudes of Lt. Shrank (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Officer Krupke (Danny Wolohan) that both Sharks and Jets are the unwanted trash, not just the Sharks. That is why they struggle against each other to maintain “face,” and identity in their gang until they are dead and the soil they have struggled over that has rejected them is forced to accept their corpses.
The one group that is missing from this production which I never realized before is missing for a great reason: the dominant social class of conservative “haves.” It is this notably absent elitist tribe that has made the country a pressure cooker of rejection, a blight and a hard climb to the top of the lower middle class for both wandering tribes. It is this group that indirectly encourages tribalism as an answer for those who have little hope for the future and are made to feel as outcasts and criminals who belong in jail (“Gee, Officer Krupke”-the projections during this number are just spot-on).
The song sung terrifically by Action (Elijah A. Carter) and the Jets reveal they cannot escape from the dominant white culture’s prophecy about them as criminals. As they internalize the perspective of the dominant culture and law enforcement, their self-annihilation is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though Action and the Jets tell the Officer to “Krup” himself, it isn’t enough. Their trajectory is fated and doomed, especially without mentors to guide them away from their self-loathing. That Tony and Maria become swept up in their misery unable to break completely free from their own posse and families is the tragedy we have come to hope against.
The director’s use of “larger-than-life” video shakes, stimulates, references and enhances the symbolism and profound human depth of the star-crossed lovers and their “posses.” The projections against the entire back wall of the stage sometimes in split screens of twenty portraits of gang members, sometimes in engaging medium shots of Doc’s drugstore (“Something’s Coming”) and the sweatshop (renamed from the bridal shop) where Maria and her friends work reveal the homely mores which Tony and Maria accept apart from the gang members’ identity and lifestyle.
I particularly enjoyed how the close-ups of Maria and Tony in the intimacy of their alone time after he discovers her name worked. First, both Shereen Pimentel and Isaac Powell are vibrant, passionate and in-the-moment, practically every moment. Van Hove’s staging and Powell’s rendition of “Something’s Coming,” and “Maria” particularly shine. Powell’s voice, interpretation and movement are uplifting. In “Tonight” he appears as light as a feather; it is, a full expression of the exhilaration of his love for Maria. I have not seen anything like his performance; he is mesmerizing reaching the highs, lows and devastation of believing that Maria has been killed. He is so there, he brings us there with him. Superlative! Magnificent!
Maria is bubbling over warmth, passionate in her love scene with Powell which was a videoed close-up which made total sense and was an expression of their intimacy as they become “one” and exclude the world they were born into and have decided to leave. Pimentel’s fury after Tony is killed is so convincing, she makes you believe she will shoot all of the guilty, conferring upon herself the roles of judge, jury and executioner, thereby convicting them of his death.
The projections carry the metaphoric journey of the outsider, the trash, the unwanted in a through-line of our time, of all time in the import of tribalism’s necessity in a culture that kicks these kids to the bottom and stands in the way of allowing others to find peace, love and happiness. This isn’t just about warring tribes; it’s about seeking power and domination, the easier, faster way out cultural hell than using intellect, logic and wisdom, the qualities amassed through experience, overcoming obstacles and time-worn trial and error.
The Sharks and the Jets, indistinguishable ethnically, are yet distinguishable through costume designer An D’Huys fine designs and color coordination. However, notable is that the Sharks and Jets are brothers of the same ethos who should be helping each other climb upward, instead of fulfilling the white culture’s perceptions of them as violent criminals. By the time we meet them in the video close-ups of the Prologue, we know it is too late. As young men and women, they have few tools at their disposal (wisdom-gained through experience) to thrive as they seek to establish who they are. After all, it is an alien society of adults who eschew them or culturally disavow what they are as tattooed, pierced, hoodlum criminals.
Sadly, their choices to achieve are few. They can either “die young in a blaze of self-annihilating triumph and leave a good-looking corpse” or live the defeatist life of a self-quarantined, cowardly wussy to avoid the gangs. In Ivo Van Hove’s production, sociocultural economic inequality encourages these tribes toward the genocidal thing to do. That Tony and Maria find each other and love is miraculous. The scene where Van Hove and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker stage the couples moving off together revealing love as an answer to the culturally encouraged nihilism and self-destruction is particularly touching and hopeful.
This version of West Side Story is a shining example of how structure, form, substance and profound understanding merges to make elevated art. Van Hove cleverly uses the projections and the live staging of the actors/characters in tandem; one informs the other, whether it is to enhance the symbols and themes, to emphasize the characterizations or to detail intimacy. What is communicated is remarkable and unforgettable. Coupled with the acting, singing, movement and the dance numbers by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker are filled with athleticism that is so appropriate to the characters. All of this contributes to making the production indescribable- breathtaking, stunning, gobsmacking are an understatement. And the music is luscious, gorgeous, fabulous, thanks to Jonathan Tunick (orchestrations) and Alexander Gemignani (music supervisor & director).
There is so much more. I’ll just finish with… I also loved the staging/choreography where Maria and Tony are striving to move toward each other pulling against the need of their tribes. The piled-on movement is gripping, sinewy, a tug of war that they will defy for they love each other. Wonderful. And at the end they are pulled apart heaven and earth dividing them until…
The creative team are exceptional artists: Luke Halls (video design) Tom Gibbons (sound design) An D’Huys (costume design). Also superlative are Quinn Matthews as video director, Eric K. Yue as director of photography, Taylor Shung as video producer, Jan Versweyveld for his scenic design and lighting design.
There is nothing else to state except you must see this production. It is an event that does more than entertain. It grabs your heart and makes you understand your humanity and compassion. West Side Story is at the Broadway Theatre (1681 Broadway) running with no intermission until 6th September. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.