A New York Theatre Guide to... West Side Story!
Something's HERE, something good! Here's all you need to know about the revolutionary Broadway revival...
It’s West Side Story, Jim, but not as we know it! The classic 1957 musical, featuring a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, has been radically re-invented by Belgian director Ivo van Hove to reflect American gang culture of today. This bold new take began previews at the Broadway Theatre on December 10, 2019, and officially opened on February 20, 2020.
What’s it all about?
Inspired by William Shakespeare’s enduring tragedy Romeo & Juliet, West Side Story follows star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria. The main spanner in the romantic works, of course, is the fact that our protagonists are associated with rival gangs. Tony is a member of The Jets, a gang of Americans led by his best friend Riff, whilst Maria is the sister of Bernardo, the opposing leader of Puerto-Rican immigrant gang The Sharks. As the two warring groups organise a rumble to determine gang supremacy and, once and for all, settle the argument of who controls the streets, Tony and Maria fall desperately in love and attempt to broker a peace. Like its Shakespearean influencer, the musical ends in devastation, posing a clear warning about racial tension in the world today and its tragic consequences.
Who’s starring in it?
With an unprecedented, record-breaking total of 32 Broadway debuts, the cast of West Side Story is all about young blood (and rest assured, plenty of it is spilled on the vast stage of the Broadway Theatre, along with sweat and tears, of course)! Indeed, there are only four adult roles in the production (Daniel Oreskes as Doc, Danny Wolohan as Officer Krupke, Thomas Jay Ryan as Lt. Schrank, and Pippa Pearthree as Glad Hand). Starring as Tony, Isaac Powell is a shooting star of the Broadway scene, having previously become a fan favorite thanks to his performance as Daniel in the 2018 Tony Award-winning revival of Once on This Island. Opposite him, Shereen Pimentel excels as a much fierier Maria than perhaps usually portrayed in West Side Story and boasts powerful, operatic vocals to boot. A special mention also goes to the captivating Dharon E. Jones, making his Broadway debut as Riff. Stepping in for original cast member Ben Cook, who was forced to leave the production in previews due to a sustained injury, Jones has more than made the role his own and is a masterful dancer, as aggressive as he is dynamic. The young cast is the epitome of racial diversity and it also depicts a variety of sexual orientations, updating the original and giving a new sense of urgency when questioning if there’s a place for us… Somewhere…
What’s special about this production?
Purists beware! If you know anything about director Ivo van Hove, it should come as no surprise that this production has thrown the rulebook straight out of the window. Renowned for his hybrid productions of theatre and live cinematic camera work, van Hove’s West Side Story is no exception. The rear wall of the stage is covered from floor to ceiling with a gigantic video wall that displays both live and recorded footage, enabling the tiniest of details to be seen all the way back in the nose-bleed seats. There are two set locations behind the screen (Doc’s drugstore and the bridal shop), which open up to the audience via hidden doors, and even the stairwells and dressing rooms backstage function as the walk-up to Maria’s bedroom, with footage fed live to the video wall on the stage at certain moments of the show. At times you are directed to watch the screen for all the off-stage action and at other times, the onstage action is intensified and enhanced by the extreme close-ups behind. Despite the recorded and impressively edited video by Luke Halls, however, the lasting images audiences may possibly take away with them come courtesy of the show’s theatricality. The visual of young, slaughtered bodies lifted into the air, in the midst of an epic rainstorm is as impactful as it is haunting.
For the first-time ever in the United States, Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography has also been replaced. Instead, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s modern choreography introduces street dance elements and an altogether more frantic and aggressive atmosphere that fills the expansive Broadway Theatre stage. Kudos to the terrific ensemble who keep this production pulsating and kudos to Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel for standout performances that resist being dwarfed by the massive video projections of themselves.
Who would we recommend it to?
If you saw van Hove’s production of Network and were equally as astounded by the technological, cinematic aspects of the show as you were by Bryan Cranston’s tour-de-force performance, then West Side Story will only magnify that astonishment. If you’re also a fan of radical new takes on timeless classics (think along the lines of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 “Romeo + Juliet” film as a prime example), then this one will be right up your West Side street too. There is also much to marvel at for all you dance enthusiasts out there. But due to the violent content, gun shots, knives and bloodshed, we wouldn’t recommend this production for anyone under the age of 13. Otherwise, there’s certainly a place for you at this exciting, new revival on the Great White Way.
(Photos by Jan Versweyveld)