West Side Story on Broadway: Reviews and Photographs

This fifth Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” which opened tonight, is different from the previous productions of the modern-day version of Romeo and Juliet, with its multiracial cast of 50 (33 of whom are making their Broadway debuts) in tattoos and fashionably torn attire; and its 25 cameras, some held by the performers, projecting live video onto huge screens, including from Maria’s bedroom four flights up from the stage of the Broadway Theater. The difference is also evident on the sidewalk outside the theater, where protesters picket nightly, because of cast member Amar Ramasar, who portrays Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, because he was accused of sharing naked pictures of fellow dancers at the New York City Ballet.
Belgium avant-garde theater artist Ivo van Hove, who took liberties with three previous productions on Broadway (“Network,”The Crucible,” and “A View from the Bridge“) has cut the intermission and the song “I Feel Pretty” added many videos and changed the tone. “Gee, Officer Krupke,” for example, is no longer humorous, but dark, reflecting incidents of police brutality against people of color.

The result has yielded mixed reviews.

Jonathan Mandell, DC Theatre Scene

What’s most remarkable about Ivo van Hove’s shake-up of West Side Story is, for all the Belgian director’s ruinous choices – chief among them, an overabundance of distracting video projections – he doesn’t completely ruin what’s most thrilling about this 63-year-old musical updating of Romeo and Juliet. Leonard Bernstein’s music ….But so much of this West Side Story involves choices that are at best insufficiently thought through, or, worse, nearly autonomic avant-garde affectations of the sort that we’ve seen many times before.

Ben Brantley, New York Times: ….curiously unaffecting reimagining of a watershed musical…most of the performers onstage here have video doppelgängers, projected on the wall behind them, who are many, many times their natural size…. as the camera caresses each photogenic face, the men’s tattoos start to look less like don’t-mess-with-me emblems of tribal membership and more like fashion choices. We might have stumbled into a casting call for a Calvin Klein fragrance ad (“Rough — for the man who likes it that way”).

Helen Shaw, New York Magazine

the Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s revival has been mortally divided against itself, done to death by its own staging and design choices….There are certainly a few fine elements in the show….But when this West Side Story wants to be gritty, van Hove’s sexy-wexy backdrop choices make it cheesy and anodyne; when a performer tries to be genuine, some awkward live zoom will reveal artificiality. Attention, both the audience’s and the performers’, is critically divided. Few people on earth can emote in close-up for the camera and reality’s “wide shot” simultaneously; it’s an actor’s nightmare.

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: 4 stars out of 5….Van Hove’s West Side Story functions very differently from any we have seen before. If the result is sometimes murky, it is also frequently revelatory—a major accomplishment in a show whose status as a classic threatens to freeze it in time and relevance….The production is conservative when it comes to Leonard Bernstein’s dynamic and still-delightful music, played by a full 25-piece orchestra, and to Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. But the work of original auteur-director Jerome Robbins has mostly been set aside…In the larger dances and fights, it is sometimes hard to tell who is on which side, which may be intentional.

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter
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.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety
Whittled down to one hour and forty-five minutes, “West Side Story”… has grown exceedingly dark and mislaid some of its moving parts….But the plot of this beloved musical remains intact…
There’s no doubt that the sensibility has shifted in this revival, but not enough to seem theatrically radical…Most of the updating is modest enough. No one pulls out a cell phone to call for reinforcements for the rumble, though one kid is spotted using an ATM. But there seems to be no rationale for fiddling with the time frame in the first place

Chris Jones Daily News:
No one individual turns in a star performance — Van Hove is invariably the star of his own work — but the two leads are not only up to the job vocally but feel like a single organism.

Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly: B…For all its high-concept minimalism, the production tends to tackle certain themes, like immigration and police brutality, with a literalism that borders on cliché

Michael Somers, New York Stage Review: The relentless misery of the director’s gloomy interpretation of the musical scarcely allows for any contrasting moments of joy or sweetness as Tony and Maria discover each other and fall in love

Roxane Gay, Gay Mag:
The show’s attempts at inclusion are, at times, clumsily executed. The black Jets would have more solidarity with the Puerto Rican Sharks than the white Jets. That they don’t in this show is the misstep of people who did not bother to learn much about the cultures they tried to represent. During “Gee Officer Krupke,” there are, among others, images of the border wall between the United States and Mexico. It’s clear what they are trying to say but it is also cognitively dissonant because Puerto Rico is part of the United States, and it is an island and the show is set in present day. To flatten the experience immigration without nuance makes it seem like the show’s architects think all brown people and their experiences are interchangeable.

Max Windman, AMNY: muddled, self-conscious, pretentious, humorless, dizzying, bewildering mess, in which the show’s memorable songs and youthful romance get lost in the midst of brutal violence and overwhelming video imagery

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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