Review of Ivo van Hove's West Side Story on Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    February 21, 2020
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    After mamboing into musical theater history in 1957, West Side Story has rumbled back again in a reimagined revival by Belgian director Ivo van Hove so packed with wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling video that it’s like a new hybrid. Call it a Broadway vidsical.

    While you’re at it, call this provocative yet mixed production at the Broadway Theatre wildly visceral, ultra gritty and at times frustratingly at odds with itself.

    This musical— created by Jerome Robbins (choreography and concept), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Arthur Laurents (book) —is one that virtually everyone knows, which makes it ripe for a fresh take. The plot is the same: Star-crossed, blood-spattered sweethearts Tony and Maria— based on Romeo & Juliet —face love and war on New York City's mean streets. Those surroundings are meaner than ever. The Sharks and Jets punks are rougher, more violent, and, as dressed in costumes by An D’Huys, practically interchangeable. Presumably that’s a choice: They’re not offing each other, they’re killing themselves.

    It’s no wonder “I Feel Pretty” has been jettisoned— there’s no place in this harsh wasteland for a flighty fantasy. The soaring “Somewhere” remains, but exactly where this vision unfolds is unclear. The west side of …The Bronx? A Gerard Avenue sign suggest that, while grim, vacant streets throw off a horror-movie vibe. Projected time stamps— 10pm… Midnight —drum up dread like "The Shining."

    As the action unfolds, actors are seen in and around Jan Versweyveld’s boxy little drugstore, bridal shop and bedroom sets situated at the back of the stage. They’re also seen in magnified video projected simultaneously onto a screen taking up the whole rear wall of the theatre. Designed by Luke Halls, the video, live and recorded, looms so large that a gang member’s flaring nostrils can be seen from the nosebleeds seats, if not from space. Where to look? At the video? At the actors? It’s like watching a drive-in movie indoors, with people interacting on a huge screen.

    As a result, intimacy, especially in the essential love story, gets lost. Fortunately, Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel, as Tony and Maria, are strong actors and singers and still put their own stamps on the parts. As rival gang leaders, Dharon E. Jones and Amar Ramasa, a controversial casting choice due to his involvement in a #MeToo-style scandal, bring required intensity.

    Van Hove (NetworkThe Damned) has become synonymous with video effects. It’s tempting to dismiss his go-to device as having totally jumped the Sharks--and the Jets. But not quite. Video imagery turns the intricately constructed, elaborately textured “Tonight” into a thrilling multilayered highlight. If only all of the video worked so well.

    It doesn’t. “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a silly number thumbing its nose and diminishing authority in comic fashion, fights with footage highlighting police brutality. During “America,” led by Anita (Yesenia Ayala), a montage of images of a tattered U.S. flag, stormy Puerto Rican beaches, and so on, distracts from the choreography, a high-octane blend of ballet and angry street moves by Anne Teresa De Keesmaeker.

    Even with issues, the 2020 vision of West Side Story reveals the durability of the musical, depth and beauty of the songs and the stubbornly evergreen message. When it comes to life’s hard realities, this show is more apt to offer a reminder than a diversion.

    (Photo by Jan Versweyveld)

    "No one should be surprised to hear that Ivo van Hove has blown up West Side Story. This industrious, experimental director is celebrated, after all, for taking an artistic detonator to sacred classics — by authors like Shakespeare, Molière, Miller and O’Neill — and letting the pieces fly. But the blowing up I’m talking about in this curiously unaffecting reimagining of a watershed musical, which opened on Thursday night at the Broadway Theater, is the kind associated with photography, the process by which a picture is enlarged to outsize proportions."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Van Hove’s West Side Story is likely to divide admirers of the show into warring camps. But the revival approaches the show with the confidence of knowing that it does not need to be definitive. There will be other West Side Storys, including Stephen Spielberg’s film later this year. Meanwhile, if Broadway is to be a place where artistic risk is valued, there’s a place for this."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "In Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s finger-snapping-free staging, there’s a gigantic video wall behind a mostly spare stage, modern clothes and a ferocity not seen since the musical’s 1957 premiere, when The Post’s Richard Watts Jr. called it the story of “the ugliness and horror of a war to the death between the boys.” With that in mind, van Hove’s visceral take is spot-on for 2020. As long as kids are still being born into a “lousy” world, West Side Story shouldn’t be a trip down memory lane — it should be raw and real."
    Johnny Oleksinski for New York Post

    "It says something about the supreme power of flesh-and-blood people portraying raw human feeling onstage, without the filter of another medium, that the most emotionally devastating and visually stunning moment in the radical new Broadway revival of West Side Story occurs when its extensive video elements are stripped away. That happens in the coup de théâtre at the musical's climax, as a torrential downpour fills the immense darkness of the stage while a shattered young woman cradles her dead lover's body. Like many big-swing experimental bids to reimagine a canonical work, director Ivo van Hove's vigorously youthful take on the 1957 classic comes with losses and gains, but the latter are what you'll remember."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "Whittled down to one hour and forty-five minutes, West Side Story – with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins — has grown exceedingly dark and mislaid some of its moving parts in the new Broadway revival from edgy Belgian director Ivo van Hove. (Can you bear to lose “I Feel Pretty”?) But the plot of this beloved musical remains intact: We are still witnessing the deadly ethnic-fueled violence of two rival street gangs destroy the Romeo-and-Juliet romance of those immortal young lovers, Maria and Tony."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety