Broadway Theatre, New York City
As long as young men are killing each other for no good reason, “West Side Story shouldn’t be a trip down memory lane,” Ivo van Hove’s “galvanizing” overhaul of the classic 1957 musical strips away Jerome Rob bins’ balletic choreography and even jettisons “I Feel Pretty,” the show’s sweetest song. But the trims render “newly suspenseful and gripping” the central story about a budding romance between two teenagers with strong ties to rival New York City gangs. Van Hove has taken liberties, but this is “still the show you love,” reinvented for the time in which we live. “Like an artist with a degree in cardiology,” the Bel gian director “has operated on West Side Story and freshly exposed its passionate, throbbing heart.”
A few poor choices ruin the effort, Van Hove has placed enormous video screens above the actors, upon which he projects 25-foot-tall images of them—sometimes filmed earlier in street settings, sometimes sharing live footage. Too often, “these disembodied Goliaths wind up upstaging their flesh-and-blood selves,” making the production “curiously unaffecting” as a whole. And it doesn’t help that the Jets and the Sharks are now multiethnic youth gangs. Because all the performers are dressed in modern street clothes, when they rumble,“they tend to blur into one indiscriminate mass.”
“So is it all trash? No,” Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel play Tony and Maria, the show’s Romeo and Juliet characters, and they “do their iconic parts proud,” delivering a winning youthfulness and gorgeous versions of the Leonard Bernstein– Stephen Sondheim ballads “Maria” and “Tonight.” But New York City Ballet dancer Amar Ramasar, who plays Shark leader Bernardo, turns out to be an unsteady singer and hammy actor. And the distracting video imagery makes this a West Side Story that’s “mortally divided against itself.” If only van Hove had trusted more in the power of the show’s best moments, as when he has the ensemble stand together under low light to sing “Somewhere.” With that plaintive ode to the possibility of a less brutal world, “van Hove touches the live wire of his own show”—and hints at what it might’ve been.