Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 20, 2020
West Side Story. Based on a conception by Jerome Robbins. Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Orchestrations by Leonard Bernstein, Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal, and Jonathan Tunick. Music supervisor and director Alexander Gemignani. Choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Scenic and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld. Video design by Luke Halls. Costume design by An D'Huys. Sound design by Tom Gibbons. Hair and wig design by Mia M. Neal. Makeup and tattoo design by Andrew Sotomayor. Associate director Daniel Raggett. Music Coordinator Seymour Red Press. Video director Quinn Matthews. Director of photography Eric K. Yue. Video producer Taylor Shung. Entire original production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins.
Must there be entire scenes in which the actors are crammed into tiny upstage performance spaces so that we can only see what's going on by watching their projected images? Do we really need to have our attention drawn toward the roaming camera crew that is busily capturing live feed when actual "live" is at hand? West Side Story is not Network, the last show in which van Hove used this same technique, though at least that one was set in a television studio where videotaping made sense.
So please put away the video cameras. West Side Story shines most brightly when it is at its least gimmicky, when the actors are allowed to act, the singers to sing, the dancers to dance. Strip away the irritatingly distracting contrivance and you are likely to find yourself thoroughly caught up in the story of Tony and Maria, who defy families and friends for the sake of each other.
It's a tale old as time, but never has it seemed so fresh as it does in the hands of Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel. Their performances are heart-melting, the embodiment of towering, skyrocketing romantic love. When Powell sings "Maria," it is as though the words are coming to him spontaneously. And "Tonight," "One Hand, One Heart" and a beautifully staged "Somewhere" are nigh unto perfect. During these numbers, the world is as Stephen Sondheim's lyrics express it, "wild and bright ... shooting sparks into space."
Clocking in at under two intermission-free hours, the production does particularly well at capturing the youthful vitality of its characters, keeping things fresh and contemporary and fast-paced. Thirty-three of the fifty-one cast members are making their Broadway debuts, and when they are not being shunted aside for video projections, they are more than capable of meeting the demands of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's rigorous choreography. "The Rumble" and "The Dance at the Gym" are especially effective in combining modern dance techniques with youth-oriented dance moves. (Just so we don't forget the iconic original choreographer, Jerome Robbins's name is prominently displayed in the program).
There are times when the show does get caught in a time tunnel, where elements of the original 1957 production bleed through, mostly owing to lyrics that evoke era-specific hipster slang, daddy-o. This doesn't stop van Hove from putting cell phones in the hands of the characters, however, or having the "hoodlum" gang members use them to video interactions with the racist bully of a police officer, Lieutenant Schrank (a hiss-worthy Thomas Jay Ryan). Also made considerably more "today" is the role of Maria, a young woman who is neither timid nor obedient as she goes after what she wants. Hence, losing the song "I Feel Pretty" makes perfect sense here. (I'd lose "Gee, Officer Krupke" as well; its tone doesn't fit with the characterizations of the Jets who sing it.)
Among the younger cast members, Dharon E. Jones is excellent as Riff, Tony's friend and de facto leader of the Jets; it's even more impressive when you consider that he only recently took over the part from an injured-and-out Ben Cook. Yesenia Ayala gives a strong acting performance as Anita, especially in the disturbing rape scene, even if she is not always up to the vocal demands of the near-operatic "A Boy Like That/I Have A Love" duet with Maria. New York City Ballet dancer Amar Ramasar, who is the subject of an ongoing controversy that has led some to boycott this production, turns in, as you might expect, a powerful performance as Bernardo in the dance and fight sequences.
Admirers of Leonard Bernstein's fully orchestrated score are likely to be put off by the thinned out version and fewer musicians here, but at least the production has the benefit of Jonathan Tunick's sure hand as orchestrator and Alexander Gemignani's as conductor.
With just about every production Ivo van Hove has helmed, he has drawn both great admirers and puzzled theatergoers. It is likely that his take on West Side Story will garner similarly mixed reactions. But for anyone willing to separate the wheat from the chaff, there is a great deal of enjoyment to be found by focusing on the performances on the stage. There is more than enough talent to push the trickery out of the way, and Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel as Tony and Maria make it all worthwhile.