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They Found Love in a Hopeless Place: Ivo van Hove's West Side Story

Broadway's favorite auteur helms a revival of one of Broadway's favorite musicals.

Shereen Pimentel and Isaac Powell lead the cast of West Side Story, directed by Ivo van Hove, at the Broadway Theatre.
(© Jan Versweyveld)

I get chills when I hear the opening notes of West Side Story, the groundbreaking musical that is now receiving its fourth Broadway revival. The tiptoe of brass followed by the slink of woodwinds is composer Leonard Bernstein's powerfully understated announcement of a new sound on Broadway: one that is both symphonic and unabashedly American. I am happy to report that under the baton of music director Alexander Gemignani, those chills remain, and have never felt more invigorating. It's the same thrilling sensation as falling in love.

The production, by Belgian auteur Ivo van Hove, is less stimulating. Van Hove takes some admirably bold risks with a musical we all think we know: "I Feel Pretty" is out (and is not missed), and the entire evening has been shaved down to an intermission-free 105 minutes, during which the forward motion of the tragedy never lets up. Unfortunately, not all of van Hove's choices are so effective. More disappointingly, in directing his first Broadway musical, van Hove refuses to challenge his own assumptions, leading to an expected casserole of live video and Brechtian confrontation. But West Side Story comes with the base ingredients for much spicier fare.

Isaac Powell plays Tony, and Shereen Pimentel plays Maria in West Side Story on Broadway.
(© Jan Versweyveld)

It's an American transposition of Romeo and Juliet that charts the star-crossed love between Maria (Shereen Pimentel) and Tony (Isaac Powell). Tony is a charter member of the Jets, a neighborhood gang on Manhattan's west side. He has one foot out of gangland, but he keeps getting pulled back by his best friend Riff (Dharon E. Jones, bringing unexpected layers to the role). Riff is alarmed by the incursion of the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang ruled over by Bernardo (an ultra-virile Amar Ramasar). What's the big problem? Bernardo is Maria's older brother.

It's important to remember that this now-canonical musical about teenage gang warfare was seen as radically experimental when it first arrived on Broadway in 1957, and not just for its subject matter. Book writer Arthur Laurents delivered a masterpiece of economical playwriting, while 27-year-old Stephen Sondheim introduced audiences to his clever lyrics (some of which he lived to regret). Like a magician, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins animated the libretto, making dance an indispensable part of the storytelling while creating an iconic lexicon of movement (raise a knee and snap your fingers toward the ground and people instantly get your reference).

Yesenia Ayala (center) plays Anita in West Side Story.
(© Jan Versweyveld)

Robbins (whose name is still billed above those of his collaborators) has cast a long shadow over the property, and it was past time we see what West Side Story can do untethered from his vision. Hence, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has devised entirely new choreography for the piece, and van Hove's smartest choice is devoting much of the barren stage to it.

Witnessing De Keersmaeker's daringly athletic choreography from the upper rows is a breathtaking experience, like watching a particularly beautiful soccer match (tip: go for the mezzanine). The actors leap across the stage, their perfectly extended limbs slashing through the air like teenage T-1000 Terminators. At the same time, elements of Latin and contemporary street dance emerge from the fray, as the performers furiously shimmy across the porous borders of frivolity, sex, and death. It's absolutely the best dancing on Broadway, and this tireless ensemble performs it with real heart.

Dharon E. Jones and Amar Ramasar plays rival gang leaders in West Side Story.
(© Jan Versweyveld)

There isn't a weak link in the cast. Yesenia Ayala is smoldering as Anita, first lady of the Sharks. Jacob Guzman feels boyishly vulnerable under Chino's face tattoos. As Doc, Daniel Oreskes carries the weight of foresight on his shoulders; and Thomas Jay Ryan is positively loathsome as the abusive Lt. Shrank. Every member of the ensemble is just as excellent up close as they are from the upper tiers.

Van Hove gives us both perspectives through the liberal use of live video projected on the upstage wall (monumental and vivid picture by Luke Halls). It's a device that van Hove has employed before, most notably in Network. Here, much of the close-up action takes place in little film sets embedded in the upstage wall (and in the case of Maria's bedroom, completely offstage). We can only clearly see these spaces through the video design, and at first, it gives us the impression of gaining access to a part of our city hidden to most theatergoers. Later, this powerful choice detrimentally takes over the production, as our eyes are drawn away from the stage and toward the giant moving images on the upstage wall.

Collaborating with longtime scenic and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld, van Hove fleshes out his film sets, but leaves the stage mostly empty. It takes on a depressing dankness under Versweyveld's gloomy lighting. Fog rolls in and it begins to rain as the two gangs clash during the Rumble. An D'Huys's chic contemporary costumes place this West Side Story in 2020, while Andrew Sotomayor covers the cast in temporary tattoos and outfits them with the coolest haircuts. It's all very "editorial," as Tyra might comment on America's Next Top Model. And as we watch chiseled, glistening bodies stripped to the waist and fighting in the rain, the whole thing begins to resemble a David LaChapelle music video.

Dharon E. Jones plays Riff in West Side Story.
(© Jan Versweyveld)

This urban poverty fetishism reaches its lowest point during "Gee, Officer Krupke," a comedy number that van Hove repurposes to make a very serious statement about police violence. As the Jets hold their hands up (as if to say, "don't shoot"), we see footage of violent arrests. The gravity of the staging clashes with the song's zany lyrics and vaudevillian brass, and it made me wonder: When does a bold vision become a flimsy cover for a director's fear of staging the material — in this case, musical comedy?

What's even more unfortunate is that "Krupke" is a number that allows the Jets to mock a hand-wringing liberal establishment with lyrics like, "Dear kindly Judge, your honor / My parents treat me rough / With all their marijuana / They won't give me a puff." There's power in comedy, and van Hove completely denies the Jets that agency here. Rather than mocking the kind of people who sit in Broadway audiences, they are pleading with them. It's a lost opportunity for subversion that devolves into dull misery porn.

Shereen Pimentel plays Maria, and Isaac Powell plays Tony in the Broadway revival of West Side Story.
(© Jan Versweyveld)

If that sounds dispiriting to you, take heart, because Tony and Maria still steal ours in this revival. With intoxicating chemistry, Powell and Pimentel capture the head rush of falling in love, and invite the audience on that exhilarating ride. I knew their love was doomed from the start, but "Tonight" made my pulse race all the same. It just goes to show you that the spark of love can ignite in the most hopeless of places — even in van Hove's cold and damp version of West Side Story.