The legendary musical West Side Story has been transformed in a daring new Broadway revival from director Ivo Van Hove

By Dave Quinn
February 20, 2020 09:00 PM
Credit: Jan Versweyveld

It’s safe to say you’ve never seen West Side Story like this before.

Visionary director and Tony winner Ivo Van Hove has completely transformed Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s legendary 1957 musical for its new Broadway revival, which opened at New York City’s Broadway Theatre Thursday night. And while his wild changes sometimes clash with Arthur Laurents’ celebrated book, this bold and gritty new West Side Story stands apart from any production before it in a fresh and admirable way.

So just how different is this West Side Story? Well, the Romeo and Juliet-inspired plot remains, but for one, the action has been pulled from its traditional mid-1950s setting to something far more current, with costume designer An D’Huys decking the tattooed, young cast in modern streetwear designs. Gone are the fluffy circle-skirt dresses and shiny sharp suits that made numbers like “The Dance at the Gym” and “America” sing. Also missing from those numbers? Jerome Robbins’ iconic balletic choreography, with new moves here by choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, marking the first time a New York production of West Side Story has ever left Robbins’ leaps and snaps behind.

There’s a shortened runtime too, with Hove and producer Scott Rudin cutting one of the musical’s most known songs (“I Feel Pretty”) as well as removing the show’s intermission entirely. And a cast has been assembled that reflects more of America today, the story’s two rival street gangs filled with racially diverse actors and even LGBTQ+ characters (all who spend a lot of time dancing and fighting in the rain).

But the biggest difference of all is the production’s use of video. In place of a tradition set is a giant floor-to-ceiling screen on which close-ups of dance numbers, off-stage book scenes, and in some cases, pre-recorded images and montages are all projected. The video design, by Luke Halls, makes it a mixed media experience for the audience, and from the jump lets them know what they’re about to see isn’t what they’ve seen before.

The cast of West Side Story
| Credit: Jan Versweyveld
The cast of West Side Story
| Credit: Jan Versweyveld
Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentelin in West Side Story
| Credit: Julieta Cervantes

In many cases, those changes really heighten the experience. While it takes a second to adjust to the absence of Robbins’ work, the new choreography has its own raw and raging quality that fits beautifully with Hove’s vision. The cut material isn’t missed either, its absence instead turning up the sense of urgency within the piece. Plus, the colorful cast makes West Side Story‘s messaging of unity more relevant than ever.

Video, meanwhile, intensifies the action in remarkable ways. “America” becomes a commentary on the current immigration crisis with images of blunt boarder walls filling the theater. “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a song typically performed as a silly gag, is flipped into a commentary on the biases of the criminal justice system with pre-recorded projections streaming at the same time.

Most effective of all? The live-shots highlighting the deeply upsetting and traumatic sexual assault that occurs late in the piece — which, in past productions, has been staged playfully, as if to minimize the horrifying nature of the heinous crime. Yesenia Ayala, who plays Anita, handles the scene with vulnerability and fire. When it was over, the only sounds heard in the audience were those of sobs coming from the crowd.

Still, for everything that works, there’s a lot that doesn’t. The opening “Prologue” loses much of its power without the span of Robbins’ poetic sequencing. Some of Laurents’ words no longer have their bite in a modern day setting, as if they’re in direct opposition of what Hove is trying to do. As for the projections, they often take away from the action on stage, especially during big group numbers where viewers will undoubtedly struggle to focus. Other times, they confuse messaging within songs (“Cool,” in its new staging for example, dilutes the number’s take on toxic masculinity).

Amar Ramasar and Yesenia Ayala in West Side Story
| Credit: Jan Versweyveld
The cast of West Side Story
| Credit: Jan Versweyveld

All that said, there’s nothing boring about this production. The changes make for a thrilling ride, and the performances offered are dynamic throughout.

At the center of its cast of 50 (33 of whom are making their Broadway debuts) are the wonderful Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel, as star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria. Together, their chemistry is palpable, giving the show the stakes it needs. Pimentel’s operatic voice hits all the right notes, while Powell’s take on Tony — confident, charismatic, and conflicted — is worth the price of admission alone.

A note: The casting of Amar Ramasar as Bernardo has been met with controversy. The New York City Ballet principal dancer was fired from the company in 2018, amid accusations that he had shared explicit photos of female dancers without their consent. Ramasar’s union challenged his firing, and he was ordered reinstated. West Side Story has stood by his casting.

Those who have precious ties to the original may not like what they see with this revival, especially because it so drastically strays from what we’ve seen before. But there is joy in seeing an artist like Hove take a masterpiece like West Wise Story and pull it apart, especially on the heels of Stephen Spielberg’s new film adaptation arriving in theaters in December. It’s not always perfect, but it feels new in a really cool way.

Tickets for West Side Story are now on sale.