Broadway, “the fabulous invalid,” is down for the count with coronavirus, along with everything else. Here’s a few words about the last show I saw before the lights came down.
Opening at Christmas, Steven Spielberg’s remake of the stage and screen classic West Side Story will be the second film version of the property this year…following Ivo van Hove’s current Broadway revival, which is dominated by an enormous video wall that splits into multiple screens, tracks the action onstage, and showcases segments filmed outside the Broadway Theatre. I’ve never seen anything like this beast outside of a theme park attraction, or a supervillain lair in a 007 movie.
I mean that as a compliment: the images are gorgeous, sheer and clear, and if it was 3D or VR the illusion would be complete. The problem, however (and this is a constant issue with van Hove), is that the technology too often competes with the Liliputian performers, rather than enlarge their capabilities. This is an up-to-the-minute West Side Story that’s both too big and too small.
To properly appreciate this newfangled take, it’s best to know what’s been retired from the original 1957 production and the 1961 film, much if not all of which was still in place (if updated with Spanish lyrics) for West Side Story‘s last, traditional revival in 2009. Arthur Laurents’ book has been streamlined to one act and a running time of about 100 minutes; Jerome Robbins’ famed balletic choreography has been replaced; and one standard from the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score, “I Feel Pretty,” has been cut, with other amendments besides. Surely the 90-year-old Sondheim had considerable faith in van Hove to realize such a radical rethink, and that trust is sporadically rewarded.
But it takes some getting used to. At first you don’t know where to look or what to look at–Luke Halls’ colossal wall, or Jan Versweyveld’s drawfed scenic design? That gradually comes into focus, though there’s then the perpetual issue of who we’re looking at. The Sharks and The Jets, the New York City street gangs whose war comes to claim the newfound love of Jet Tony (Isaac Powell) and Shark sister Maria (Shereen Pimentel), have been deracinated here–there are Sharks and Jets of every color and, from what I could gather, gender and sexuality, which gives the Romeo and Juliet-derived piece a contemporary vibe but removes its racial underpinnings. We’re not quite sure what they’re fighting over in their melting pot, and while the performers are interestingly attired, coiffed and tattooed only a handful make much of an impression as they dart in and out of video camera range. While aspects of the show have dated its tribal antagonism is as timeless as Shakespeare, and the inclusive casting muddles rather than clarifies its themes.
Fortunately Tony and Maria, as embodied by Powell (of the excellent Once on This Island revival) and Pimentel, have the musical chops and force of personality to punch through the show’s questionable concepts, with the Anita of Yesenia Ayala (from Carousel). The three are the focus of that span of the show that incorporates “Maria,” “Tonight,” and “America,” and their sensational performances put that portion of the show over the top. (Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s choreography is a bit TikTok in places, and brutalist compared with Robbins’ but it, too, has some stunning moments, as when the lovers are forcibly separated by the gangs.)
Sequences like these can make you forgive van Hove’s clumsy insertion of a border wall into the “America” projections, or the invasive videography when Anita is assaulted. I wasn’t writhing during West Side Story‘s enhancements, as I was while watching the Oklahoma! revival, but I did wish van Hove would give his camera a rest. Once again he’s “broken the wall,” in ways that have been become cliche (yes, there’s an onstage shower)–and once again he hasn’t quite seen the show he’s pulled apart and reconstructed.