People complain about the high price of movie tickets, but they are bargains compared to the high price of seeing a movie in a Broadway Theater, as with “West Side Story.” Yes, that’s right. Most of the show in this misguided revival consists of watching actors and dancers via huge wall-to-wall projections dwarfing those going through their paces on stage. Only in comparatively rare moments when the focus is on actual stage interaction minus the overwhelming projected images does the production pick up the spirit of what made the original so beloved.
This misfire is the handiwork of director Ivo van Hove, who has made a career of shaping works in ways that are different and reflect his egotistical insistence on putting his personal stamp on works, as with his butchering of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge” and “The Crucible.” I did like his prominent use of screen projection with “Network,” but that was about television so the gambit made sense. Here the incessant distractions were even accented by projected buildings moving along when the cast members were meant to be in the same space. One often couldn’t help looking at the monumental imagery rather than at the cast below.
At the outset of van Hove’s “West Side Story” there is huge introductory projection of actors’ faces, which is interesting, but then he gets carried away so that a vast portion of the show consists of the projected images. There was a movie made of “West Side Story.” Who needs another on a Broadway stage?
The magnificent Jerome Robbins dances have been jettisoned by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, whose movements for the Jets and Sharks gang-members are a harsh updating that fits the overall concept of making the work more menacing in spinning the Romeo-and-Juliet-like tragedy. The look of the gang members is contemporary-sleazy, with tattooed bodies and ugly costuming. Yes, the talented de Keersmaeker provides some gritty contemporary dance but does not evoke the pleasure of watching Robbins’ Broadway-geared creativity.
So what’s left to praise? There is the terrific score by Leonard Bernstein and the smart lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. (Missing is the captivating “I Feel Pretty” number.) Yet somehow even the “Gee, Officer Krupke” song has lost its comedic bite. And the famous “America” number led by Anita (Yesenia Ayala) is frittered away.
When not looking miniscule compared to their gigantic screen images, Maria (Shereen Pimentel) and Tony (Isaac Powell) capture the romantic sparks inherent in the story, and they make the most out of singing “Somewhere.” They have welcome appeal.
This version of “West Side Story” has been cut to one hour and 45 minutes. I don’t have a basic problem with that, as the original book by Arthur Laurents had its heavy-going moments without the poetic beauty of Shakespeare’s language in “Romeo and Juliet.” Also, more cynically, I was glad to see the misbegotten show end, although I have to say that on the night I saw it the audience applauded enthusiastically.
The original in 1957 may be remembered vividly by older audiences, although many have seen the enduring film version. (There was a Broadway revival in 2009—see review under Search.) I suspect that younger audiences unfamiliar with the show that won so many hearts may be more receptive to what van Hove and de Keersmaeker have wrought. Major credit is owed video designer Luke Halls whose complicated work was integrated effectively on purely technical grounds. At the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway (at 53rd Street). Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed February 27, 2020.