The hallmarks that define Ivo van Hove’s work are all present in his new revival of West Side Story. There’s the stark minimalism, the muted color palette, the live video, the fluorescent lights. There are the textual elisions that cause the ire of purists. Out of character, though, everybody wears shoes (most of the time).
When Scott Rudin brought him out of Europe and New York Theatre Workshop into the commercial sector, his iconoclastic vision catapulted him to a whole new level of fame. But in the subsequent years, van Hove’s star has not always burned its brightest. His bag of tricks gets tired when he recycles ideas without tailoring them to the specifics of each project and, though I am the first to go blurry-eyed with delight when he’s successful, I’ve found myself suffering from “van Hove Fatigue” more and more. What a pleasure it is, then, to report that my eyes are once again honeyed over by this revival.
Productions of West Side Story often insist on retaining the original Jerome Robbins choreography, the original orchestrations, and many elements of the original design. I get it – they’re iconic, people recognize them, they work. But they’re not the only way the show can be done. The writing is so strong, it can withstand a new take and that’s what van Hove and company are bringing to it.
Arthur Laurents’ book never feels dated because he invented a slang that exists out of time. It doesn’t sound like what these kids, in their modern garb, tatted and scarred, would actually say, but it also doesn’t feel like what the kids said in 1957 when it was written. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s score is lush and sentimental with symphonic musical textures that suffuse the underlying emotion of the poetic lyrics. Jonathan Tunick’s new orchestrations retain the soaring feel of the originals, but highlight different pieces of the instrumentation to align it with the new staging. The music isn’t what these people would be listening to or singing, but, as the best musicals do, it’s the sound of their hearts, and that’s timeless.
In his boldest stroke, van Hove has removed the intermission and shortened the run time by forty-five minutes. This is achieved through invisible incisions in the book and the removal of “I Feel Pretty” and the “Somewhere” ballet. When these cuts were revealed, there was an outcry on the internet. In practice, though, if there’s no intermission, there’s no place for “I Feel Pretty.” Intermissions break tension, by design or not, and it’s impossible to come back from the bathroom or the bar and immediately feel the way you felt before the illusion was interrupted and the lights came up. “I Feel Pretty” eases the audience back and it does it well, but if we didn’t go anywhere, there’s no reason to bring us back.
As Maria, Shereen Pimentel shows us, with her face and her body, that loving Tony (Isaac Powell) makes her feel pretty. Pimentel and Powell have believable, sweaty, pubescent chemistry. It’s sexual, but it’s inexperienced; it’s groin-forward, and it’s careless. When they meet at the dance, it’s not the prim palm-to-palm courtship Robbins aped from Shakespeare. It’s a let’s-touch-parts bodily collision and their two warring factions have to physically pull them apart from each other. Having seen this, we know how they feel about each other. We don’t need flouncing in a dress shop.
As always, van Hove’s production has scenic and lighting design by his partner Jan Versweyveld, a collaboration usually marked by mid-century minimalist aesthetics and overhead washes of light. The stage is, indeed, mostly bare, but occasionally the back wall opens to reveal Doc’s store or the dress shop where Anita and Maria work.
These rooms are full of stuff. Everywhere you look, there is a maximalism and a use of color that I haven’t seen Versweyveld employ before. The spaces feel literal in a way that his work usually eschews, but it lends reality to the scenes that take place within them. The outside world is black and gray, but when they step into these spaces, there are pinks and blues, and life. They feel inhabited while the streets are empty and cold. Versweyveld’s lighting isolates the Jets and the Sharks from one another with shifting color that draws lines across the stage, daring the other group to cross. It pops with the choreography, casts a sodium glaze over the Rumble, and douses the tragic ending with frigid clarity. It sculpts the space from minute to minute, transferring the emptiness around New York.
The production’s scenography is marked by an enormous video screen and several roving cameras that close in on the actors’ faces and project them exponentially magnified. The actor’s face becomes the largest set piece, and scenes are played in front of eyes or bodies that are hundreds of times larger than their actual size. The performance is the scenery. The video design by Luke Halls vacillates between fixed cameras attached to the balcony rail, the fly system, and nooks in the walls and handheld cameras and iPhones wielded by the actors. At times, the video is immersed in the choreography, jumping in the air and landing in the group or sliding along the floor. It plunges the audience into the action, dissolving the fourth wall and bringing the action closer.
There are scenes where slow motion video montages fill the back wall showing the Jets going down into the subway, the characters preparing for a night on the town, or police brutality against African American youths as in “Gee, Officer Krupke.” These sequences, where the camera separates from the actors as the live action continues in front of it, are somewhat distracting, but they become a physical manifestation of the characters’ inner life, a pictorial representation of the things they’re singing about. It’s subtext writ large. When, in “America”, the wall morphs into what is basically a screensaver of Puerto Rico, it veers off course a little.
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker faced the production’s most difficult challenge in reinventing the choreography. Robbins’ original dances are seared onto the score thanks to the film version that captured all of them mostly intact. Robbins came from the world of modern dance, as does De Keersmaeker, albeit a couple generations later and from Belgium.
Her choreography for West Side Story excels when the whole ensemble is involved. De Keersmaeker has them swirl around the stage and break apart, dancing with and against each other, in alternation and in battle. The “Dance at the Gym” sequence elicits the same thrills as Robbins’ choreography, but she finds different things to emphasize. Where Robbins had head pops, De Keersmaeker has jagged elbows a beat later. Where Robbins had snaps, she has chest slaps. There persists a minor disappointment, though, that the choreography doesn’t go far enough towards new dance shapes and ideas. But maybe it’s not possible. Bernstein’s music and Robbins’ choreography might be so wedded together that they can’t be ripped apart without the dramatic thrust collapsing. De Keersmaeker’s work speaks a different language, but it just feels like a translation.
West Side Story won’t work if Tony and Maria don’t have a palpable connection and these two do. Powell’s Tony is softer-edged than the rest of the Jets. He’s more of a romantic, more of a dreamer. They call him “pretty boy” several times and it’s true. He’s beautiful in an angelic way that tattoos and a sliced cheek can only temper so much. Powell takes Sondheim’s lyrics word by word, delivering them as if putting together the puzzle of his feelings. He shows remarkable vocal restraint on “Something’s Coming,” his first song. The notes float easily out of his mouth and his tone is cloud-like. His “Maria” is like a tasting menu – each syllable its own course. If the money notes don’t have the spinning resonance they do in other voices, it’s because he’s not that kind of person. He’s quiet and contemplative and Maria is breaking his shell open, piece by piece, pushing him to look at his life and want more – and better – for his future. Pimentel’s Maria is never naive or childish. She’s seen New York, she knows what it’s like. Her soprano is strong and confident and she blends with Powell’s gentler timbre in a unique way. These two are matched in the way they look at each other, but also the way they sound.
A byproduct of Maria’s strength is that Anita is more of an equal than a mentor in this production. Yesenia Ayala plays Anita like Maria’s big sister, but she has no control over her. They feel very close in age, if not exactly the same, and this shift in dynamic complicates the second half of the musical. Ayala conveys the pain she feels at having lost her love while Maria keeps hers, but she also shows us that she recognizes it’s true love and she supports it.
As Riff, Tony’s best friend, Dharon E. Jones is all toughness and bravado. It’s hard to break beneath his surface and see what’s driving him. He was unfortunately out of breath through most of “Jet Song,” and gasps for air punctuated every other line in a distracting way. He does have a commanding presence, though, and he leads the Jets with a steady hand. As Bernardo, Amar Ramasar brings little to the production other than controversy. He is not a skilled actor or singer and his exemplary dance ability is not given prominence here. This style of dance is not his expertise and surrounded by tens of other people who can dance this choreography as well (or better), he’s just that guy who shared nude photos of women without their consent. He’s not remarkable enough to forget that, if that were even possible.
The individual components of this production coalesce to form something that is wholly original. Ivo van Hove and company take a show and visual storytelling we know very well and turn them around on themselves, examining each beat with fresh eyes. What we see and hear on this stage is an investigation into the themes of West Side Story more than the West Side Story we are accustomed to.
The gangs are not divided cleanly along racial divides. Each gang is multi-ethnic, though the Sharks lean heavily toward the Latinx side. The Jets are composed of immigrants’ children, from Poland, from Africa, from many backgrounds, but the difference is that they were all born in America and the Sharks are first generation. Who does the city and, ultimately, the country belong to, the production asks, if we are all from somewhere else? And why does it matter?