‘West Side Story’ Broadway Review: Will Ivo van Hove’s Cinematic Revival Upstage Steven Spielberg?

The classic musical about the Sharks and the Jets has never been tougher or better

west side story ivo van hove
Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Whoever thought that Ivo van Hove would beat Steven Spielberg and end up directing the first movie remake of “West Side Story”?

To be sure, there are live actors singing and dancing on stage in this new stage revival. And there are live musicians in the orchestra pit. But what dominates throughout are the powerful images projected on the immense upstage wall of the Broadway Theater, where van Hove’s fiercely reimagined “West Side Story” opened Thursday. Some of those images are pre-taped (video design by Luke Halls), others are the product of crew members wandering the stage, as well as the backstage area, to record what’s happening live and then blasting those faces/bodies into Cinemascope size on the huge screen in front of us.

Musical theater traditionalists may be aghast. For me, this “West Side Story” is by far the toughest and therefore the best I’ve ever seen, and that includes the 1964 movie, the 1980 and 2009 Broadway revivals, as well as a few other productions seen around the world. For all of this show’s technical wizardy, van Hove also achieves a musical miracle with his actors: He turns the star-crossed lovers Tony (Isaac Powell) and Maria (Shereen Pimentel) into very real rebels, and, in the process, he eradicates their cardboard Romeo and Juliet pedigree, which, in my opinion, is the major flaw of Arthur Laurents’ book.

west side story ivo van hove
Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Powell and Pimentel are crazy in love, with the emphasis on crazy. They find themselves laughing at their own meet-cute at the gym dance, and left alone, they might go back to their respective ethnic communities. But it’s the resistance they face from the Sharks and the Jets that cements their initial attraction into something that resembles love. Van Hove reinforces that resistance, as well as their infatuation, by having the Sharks and Jets literally pull Tony and Maria apart as they sing “Tonight.”

I should also add that this is the best sung “West Side Story” I’ve ever heard live. Pimentel takes an operatic approach without ever sounding affected. Powell has the range to sing Tony’s music, but is more pop in his vocal production. Occasionally, he cuts a phrase short — but not because he can’t hold the note. He’s usually does hold the note, but sometimes this Tony harbors too much testosterone to deliver Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s score note and letter perfect. A telling fact: Despite singing “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” “One Hand, One Heart” and “Tonight,” no actor playing the male lead in “West Side Story” has ever been nominated for a Tony Award. Powell will make awards history. This Tony is anything but a singing paper doll.

The musical highlight of anything “West Side Story” should come when “Tonight” is reprised. In the last two Broadway revivals, the five vocal lines plus chorus were turned into an audio mush. With this “West Side Story,” Tom Gibbons’ sound design sometimes blunts the brassy dissonance in Bernstein’s music, but the sensitive amplification of the singers and Alexander Gemignani-led orchestra insures that the multiple vocal lines are delineated to magnificent effect.

Van Hove borrows one major improvement that Ernest Lehman’s 1961 screenplay made to the original musical. While the Jets are given four songs (“Jets Song,” “Cool,” “Tonight,” and “Gee, Officer Krupke”), the Sharks sing only “Tonight.” No wonder audiences have trouble identifying with the Puerto Rican gang. The 2009 Broadway revival tried to rectify that situation, to little effect, by translating some dialogue and lyrics into Spanish. Much better is Lehman’s fix. He took “America,” sung in the original stage musical by Anita and her female friends, and turned it into a spirited debate between those women, who like Manhattan, and their boyfriends, the Sharks, who prefer life in San Juan.

“America” shows van Hove’s mixed-media approach at its best. While the Puerto Rican men and women battle it out vocally, the upstage screen provides images of life in San Juan and Manhattan that gradually morph into shots of the U.S. fence that runs into the ocean at Tijuana and the infamous wall along the U.S./Mexico border. Yes, he’s mixing Latinos. He’s also speaking to a larger issue. A similar approach enhances “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the screen now flooded with images of police brutality, empty courtrooms and street-corner vigils.

It’s unfortunate that Jerome Robbins’ original dances haven’t been retained. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s choreography is a grab bag of styles. There are some Robbins moves mixed in with gymnastic back-flips, hip-hop clichés and when New York City Ballet’s Amar Ramasar (playing Bernardo) takes the stage, de Keersmaeker throws in an arm lift and a tour en l’air.

In one respect, some of Robbins’s choreography had to be excised due to van Hove’s penchant for rain effects. The Rumble now takes place in a torrential downpour, meaning it can no longer be a rough-and-tumble ballet. Dancers suffer enough injuries on dry floors, much less one covered in an inch of water. Van Hove and de Keersmaeker’s solution is to turn the Rumble into a wet mass grope reminiscent of the director’s finale for “A View From the Bridge” (Broadway 2015).

west side story
Photo: Jan Versweyveld

What works without reservation is van Hove’s poignant segue from the Rumble to “Somewhere.” Robbins’s dream ballet is often rendered as a United Colors of Benetton commercial. Here, with the rain still falling, “Somewhere” becomes a grief-stricken funeral. To achieve this quick dissolve between scenes, the upbeat “I Feel Pretty” has been dropped. Van Hove’s concept is so strong I think a few bars of that treacly tune could have been sung solo and a cappella by Maria before she gets hit with the bad news about Bernardo’s murder.

Van Hove takes “West Side Story” from the 1950s to present day. Although he retains dated lines like “buddy boy” and a “daddy-o,” no one’s reading comic books anymore on these city streets. Is this the first Broadway musical to credit tattoo design, by Andrew Sotomayor? The overall grittiness is reinforced by Halls’ videos, as well as Jan Versweyveld’s super-realistic scenic design. That upstage screen occasionally opens to reveal Doc’s candy store and the bridal shop where Maria and Anita (the talented Yesenia Aylala) work. As designed by Versweyveld, the one space is a sweatshop, the other a pit of salmonella. The detail is remarkable, and thanks to the video cam, the squalor is on full display. The actors sometimes disappear into the recesses of those two shops, forcing us to follow them on the big screen. At its worst, the effect is merely annoying.

In the end, Van Hove is a musical theater traditionalist at heart. Rarely is a note sung where he doesn’t make sure that his actors are where they’re supposed to be — on stage in full, breathtaking voice. Equally important, he has been careful to cast talented actors who can also sing. It’s a cardinal rule of musical theater that even legends like Harold Prince and Bob Fosse didn’t always obey.

In the meantime, Spielberg has his work cut out for him.