A review by Ben Brantley for The New York Times.
No one should be surprised to hear that Ivo van Hove has blown up “West Side Story.” This industrious, experimental director is celebrated, after all, for taking an artistic detonator to sacred classics — by authors like Shakespeare, Molière, Miller and O’Neill — and letting the pieces fly.
But the blowing up I’m talking about in this curiously unaffecting reimagining of a watershed musical, which opened on Thursday night at the Broadway Theater, is the kind associated with photography, the process by which a picture is enlarged to outsize proportions.
This means that most of the performers onstage here have video doppelgängers, projected on the wall behind them, who are many, many times their natural size. As such, those fatally rivalrous street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, have probably never loomed larger.
Yet these disembodied Goliaths wind up upstaging their flesh-and-blood selves. As real, human-scale people, those crazy, mixed-up kids from New York’s mean streets have seldom seemed smaller, blurrier or less sure of their purpose — as characters or as performers.
Inside gossip has been steady about this “West Side Story” even before it went into previews. That irrepressible iconoclast van Hove, it was said, would be taking a grittier, rawer approach to a show that rattled Broadway when it opened in 1957 but has since become a sentimental standard.
This would involve a certain amount of subtracting from the elements that have made “West Side Story” an evergreen. Jerome Robbins’ landmark choreography, which turned ballet into martial art, would be jettisoned altogether, to be replaced with new work by the Belgian avant-gardist Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
Most of the original score by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, would be left intact, though a few squeaks of outrage emerged when it was learned that van Hove was deep-sixing the frolicsome “I Feel Pretty.”
This was all in the name of a more general de-prettifying of “West Side Story.” His version, van Hove said in an interview in the Guardian, would reflect the “much rougher world” that had come into being with the election of Donald Trump. He would emphasize how much the show was about an environment “where people don’t listen to each other’s arguments, but just react to each other.”
Got it: The explosively divided street turf of gangland becomes a mirror for our age of irreconcilable differences. Why not? I was more than ready for a brash, new “West Side Story,” especially after the anodyne sweetness of its last Broadway outing in 2009, staged by Arthur Laurents, who wrote the show’s original book. (Still to come, by the way, is Steven Spielberg’s new film version.)
I was hopeful when, in the production’s opening moments, the gang members filed onto the front of the vast, empty stage and looked dead-eyed into the audience. You could imagine any of these able-bodied young brawlers being a deadly weapon all by himself.
Then those big, projected close-ups begin. (Luke Halls did the video design.) And as the camera caresses each photogenic face, the men’s tattoos start to look less like don’t-mess-with-me emblems of tribal membership and more like fashion choices. We might have stumbled into a casting call for a Calvin Klein fragrance ad (“Rough — for the man who likes it that way”).
Soon, they all start to sing and dance — and occasionally exchange dialogue that in this context sounds terminally quaint. And the impression is no longer of angry young things on the brink of catastrophic explosion.
They all read young, for sure, but with the self-conscious, just-say-the-words neutrality that stems from being insecure. Their choreography has aggressive accents of taekwondo and boxing, along with an air-slicing assortment of somersaults. Yet generally, these dancers seem less like kamikaze street warriors than scampering puppies, who like nothing more than to run around in circles and wriggle on their backs.
Even with overhead shots of the dancers in writhing formation, they tend to blur into one indiscriminate mass, which is a problem if you’re trying to establish two mutually loathing, racially segregated sides. The Jets — led by Riff (Dharon E. Jones) — are “homeborn” Americans, while the Sharks — whose captain is Bernardo (Amar Ramasar, whose casting has drawn fire because of allegations of past sexual misconduct) — are Puerto Ricans.
Yet in this version, both gangs appear to be multiracial melting pots. Could this be van Hove’s point, that prejudice exists only in the mind’s eye? Maybe, but once these boys and girls start to rumble, you’ll wish they were wearing team uniforms. (An d’Huys did the tightfitting, street-tough costumes.)
As a consequence, the fabled dance at the gym sequence feels kind of like a loosely organized line dancing competition. Only the “America” number, in which the Puerto Rican men and women sing and dance out opposing views of their homeland, has that pulsing clarity you long for elsewhere. (The number is appealingly led by a spiky Yesenia Ayala, as Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita.) And an unexpected, rain-soaked postscript for the anthemic “Somewhere,” in which the characters are sorted into the idealized pairings of their dreams, is an oasis of quiet beauty.
No, I haven’t forgotten that there’s a Romeo and Juliet-style love story at this show’s center, the source of some of the most beautiful ballads ever written for Broadway. Here, Tony, the peace-loving former Jet is played by Isaac Powell, while Maria, the innocent young Shark girl he falls for, is portrayed by Shereen Pimentel.
Both performers sing pleasantly. (The music, supervised by Alexander Gemignani, is as ravishing as ever, when you let yourself focus on it.) And they share a loose, endearingly goofy quality that makes this Tony and Maria seem especially young and vulnerable. You fear for their safety. You are less likely to feel they are capable of obsessive, transformative passion.
Some of their fraught courtship is conducted behind the main stage, in custom-built alcoves representing a sweatshop; a drugstore; an apartment. (The set is by van Hove’s constant collaborator, Jan Versweyveld.) Since the audience’s eye can’t always follow the characters, we have no choice but to watch their interactions onscreen.
Punctuative video has been deployed many times before by van Hove, often brilliantly — to take us into the corridors of power (in the Shakespeare anthology “Kings of War”), the labyrinths of Id (in his adaptation of the Visconti film “The Damned”) and the camera-ruled universe of television (in last season’s “Network”).
But I fail to detect a natural rhyme or reason for the way video is used here, aside from the location street shots that often provide backdrops for outdoor scenes and a “black lives matter”-style montage about police violence for the jaunty “Office Krupke” number. There are a lot of split screens and a lot of frankly clichéd, commercial-style images of characters running and brooding.
Since this “West Side Story” is not period-specific, I don’t think van Hove is commenting on our fragmented 21st-century attention spans. But the fact that our focus is repeatedly splintered obviates much chance for emotional concentration and, consequently, the possibilities for being truly moved.
A couple of images haunt me from this “West Side Story,” and both do come from video. One is of an anonymous, lissome figure, barely detectable as he or she dances at the end of a long, dark street. The other is of a television playing while Maria and Anita are arguing about a recent gang slaying.
Since what they have to say here is crucial to the outcome of the story, I really should have been giving Anita and Maria my full attention. It says much about this internally divided production that instead, I found myself trying to make out the grainy heads on the small TV and wondering what they had to say.
West Side Story
Tickets At the Broadway Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, westsidestorybway.com. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.