A ‘West Side Story’ For Our Time on Broadway

West Side Story is back on Broadway with a radical, new production that will divide audiences. That’s a refreshing thing, since West Side Story could all too easily be seen as irrelevant, given productions like the last Broadway revival (directed by Arthur Laurents in 2009). That staging took place in the usual two acts and fifteen scenes and failed to remind us that West Side Story truly succeeds when it is a seamless series of tragic choices taking place in one weekend in New York City — or, as the brutal cop and an equally brutal gang member describe it, this “lousy” world. The West Side Story onstage at the Broadway Theatre is a reminder that although the show was not instantly embraced by audiences in 1957, it has come to be known as a masterpiece by bringing to the stage a story that remains as current as any tale ripped from today’s headlines (involving gang violence, immigration, racism, the perception of police brutality). It was as uncomfortable for audiences then as the film Clockwork Orange would be 14 years later.

But avoid this version, directed by Ivo van Hove, at your own peril, for it is a staging that proves the strength of what is possibly the greatest musical of all time. If any show can stand up to new interpretations, it is the classic created in 1957 by director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and librettist Arthur Laurents. West Side Story is at its best when reminding us that the road to a more just nation is not always a sentimental journey, but a sober acceptance that there is still work to be done to keep the dream of America alive and thriving.

There is much to admire in this new production. While at first, the scenic and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld and video projections by Luke Halls threaten to diminish the magic of live theater, in the end they serve as exciting tools to breathe new life into the show — especially, and literally, in a scene in the bodega that now replaces Doc’s drugstore when Tony and Maria vow their undying love for one another while a column with a full length mirror divides them. In their singing, the mirror fogs up with the warmth of their breath. It evokes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in an image that is unforgettable.

Given the trend on Broadway to reinterpret classic musicals by paring them down, it is refreshing to report that is not the case here. Let’s face it, given a different producer, we could have Tony playing cello and Maria playing tuba, and the ticket-buying audience being played for fools. Not the case here. Producer Scott Rudin has given us a production that is a feast of contemporary urban life. The detail, captured effectively by the onstage cinematographers who are also in the cast, is stunning and always enlightening. Musically, the show has never sounded better. Under the vigorous baton of music director Alexander Gemignani, the thrilling score is what drives the show. The tempi inspire the forward thrust of events onstage and the dynamics are invigorating.

This production is brought to life by a fierce, witty, precise, multi-ethnic cast that features 33 Broadway debuts. At the center, Isaac Powell, as Tony, is a wonder. In an ensemble piece, it is nonetheless quite clear from his first scene that he is a star waiting to be discovered. He plays the role with the commitment of an Olympic athlete determined to set a personal best, yet he stays relaxed and responsive to each moment in doing so — not an easy task with the character of Tony, who usually comes across as passive and insignificant. His scenes with Maria (Shereen Pimentel) establish the two as rebels worth rooting for. For once, the star-crossed lovers at the center of the musical are not cardboard cutouts taking up time while the audience eagerly awaits the return of Anita (played here by Yesenia Ayala).

Isaac Powell, Shereen Pimentel. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Finally, although Alexa De Barr (as Graziella, one of The Jets) never pulled focus inappropriately while executing the movement, she must be singled out for her own star quality. On a stage where the dancers often compete with equally arresting and valid imagery and lighting, she is a reminder that the most exciting aspect of seeing live theater is to be in the presence of a performer performing “full out.”

This West Side Story is a brilliant ticket for young audiences who, given a typical revival of the musical, might not understand what all the fuss was about in 1957. This is not a trip down memory lane; it is an admirable attempt to revitalize an important and timeless story. Jerome Robbins’ beloved and iconic choreography has been replaced with a new, more contemporary take by choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. While the new movement does not quite keep with the score in its groundbreaking achievement of declaring choreography as a central and equal component of the musical, it does reflect a truth about the tough, limited options these characters live, as well as their hopes and aspirations. The world created onstage here will appear all too familiar to today’s young audiences, and the production’s use of film throughout will resonate for a generation whose rising adulthood has been endlessly self-photographed and archived.

While it is still a timeless classic, this staging establishes itself as a West Side Story for 2020 and, hopefully, for several years to come.

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