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In Ivo van Hove’s Hands, West Side Story’s Actors Are Mice in a Cinematic Maze

With this version of West Side Story, van Hove seems barely interested in the show itself.

West Side Story
Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Warm and riotous, with heartbreaking, unfinished cadences of promise and hesitant, exploratory rhythms bursting into sun-red brass explosions, the West Side Story score is the apex of musical theater composition. And the best part of Ivo van Hove’s highly anticipated production of the musical is that the superiority of the music is fully apparent. Conducting a 25-piece orchestra, Alexander Gemignani ensures that his players wring out all the tension, tumult, and tenderness in Leonard Bernstein’s compositions. And, even if this staging comes off as cold as the rain-soaked actors must be by show’s end, you may feel chills at the opening orchestral lick and find yourself with real tears coming to your eyes at the start of “Maria,” Tony’s (Isaac Powell) paean to the way three syllables feel on his lips.

Van Hove’s (in)famously metamorphic approach to staging classic works (The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, Hedda Gabler) might lead audiences to expect a West Side Story that entirely reimagines the show. But West Side Story hasn’t been so much transformed as toyed with: Performing in the shadow of a ceiling-to-floor video projections wall, which towers above the actors, the cast suggests mice in a vast, cinematic maze. Occasionally, when live video is projected from around the stage, often via handheld cameras wielded by the gang members, the effects are impressive, as in the “Mambo” dance-off sequence swirls thrillingly above the dancers’ heads. Scenes that take place partially off stage in little film sets behind that back wall allow for moments of unnecessary but unobtrusively detailed realism.

More often, though, the sprawling video is ridiculous. During “The Jet Song,” pre-filmed clips of each gang member sticking his tongue out at the camera while jumping around outside supersede whatever the live actors are actually doing on stage. For “Gee, Officer Krupke,” there’s a slideshow of shots depicting a process of racial injustice in the courts system; it’s as if van Hove has glommed on to a headline, skirting around engaging with the specific experiences of the characters whose stories he’s been entrusted with telling. And then there’s all those long, long panning shots of city streets in which shadowy figures pirouette far off in the distance. Those look like they might be doing Jerome Robbins’s original choreography and they, like the remnants of those classic dances in this new production, can scarcely be seen.

De Keersmaeker’s dances, angular and sometimes kickboxing-infused, rarely seem central to the storytelling. (There’s more patterned movement than real dance in this West Side Story, which sort of misunderstands the ways in which dance works alongside song to heighten and elevate the characters in the show as written.) In “America,” the dancing doesn’t have a chance of competing with the video wall. When Anita (Yesenia Ayala) sings, “Always the hurricanes blowing,” we see a hurricane on screen. And when she sings, “Immigrant goes to America,” footage appears of migrants on a rope line crossing a border stream. Even if flashing line-by-line literal illustrations wasn’t already tacky, there’s a bigger problem here: “America” is a song about the experiences of Puerto Ricans who move to the mainland, and Puerto Ricans don’t have to travel internationally to find their way to U.S. soil. Anita’s very next line is, “Nobody knows in America/Puerto Rico’s in America.” Apparently nobody in Belgium does either.

West Side Story

A scene from West Side Story © Jan Versweyveld

Audiences familiar with van Hove will be unsurprised with the invasiveness of the video in this production, as cameras abound in much of the Belgian director’s churning reinventions, from last year’s Network at the Belasco Theatre to many of his earlier Dutch-language productions with his own repertory company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Van Hove is nothing if not consistent: In addition to those projections, he’s big on getting his actors wet (in other productions, it’s been car oil and condiments; here, thankfully, it’s just endless rain water). But deep below those giant screens and downpours (which, at one point, left Powell’s mic crackling and soggy), the actors are putting on a pretty normal, pretty strong performance of West Side Story. They don’t seem particularly connected to the overwhelming, overwrought images above them, but they also aren’t usually able to steal back the focus.

While Daniel Fish’s grim revival of Oklahoma! on Broadway last season never entirely coalesced around a cogent interpretation of the classic musical, it was riveting from start to finish. That production’s faithfulness to the score and script created the sensation of losing your footing, of constantly questioning whether lines delivered with fresh ominousness were really authentic Rodgers and Hammerstein. (They were.) With this version of West Side Story, by contrast, van Hove seems barely interested in the show itself. He hasn’t discovered anything new or made anything clearer. It’s probably the first production of West Side Story that audiences new to the show may find hard to follow from start to finish.

There’s one strikingly poetic image at the climax of “Tonight,” the soaring duet that Tony and Maria (Shereen Pimentel) share. Although the projections are perplexing (are the young lovebirds sitting on the ground in the middle of an intersection?), van Hove offers a staging that makes theatrical sense: The full company enters at the start of the scene but vanishes as the couple sings, “All the world is only you and me.” At song’s end, the rival gangs reappear, attempting to physically, balletically pry apart the lovers. Still, while this moment works emotionally, it also distracts by shifting focus from the lovers to the unexpected stage picture.

Powell largely manages to escape unscathed, commanding the audience’s attention for his two early numbers, the churning “Something’s Coming” and the overflowing “Maria,” which features some surprising, contemporarily illuminating readings of the name of Tony’s new love. In some ways, Powell’s potent performance is the antithesis of this production: His version of Tony grows out of an embrace of what’s best about West Side Story yet blooms with inspired individuality that never overshadows his collaborators.

West Side Story

A scene from West Side Story © Jan Versweyveld

Pimentel is new to the spotlight, but, by chance, I heard her shimmering voice last spring in a production of the opera Dido and Aeneas at Juilliard, where she’s still an undergraduate. She offers a sassiness reminiscent of Shakespeare’s original feisty Juliet, the inspiration for Maria. The contrast between her flashes of insouciance and her lush, tender soprano allow her to mold a Maria that’s richer and fuller than most. But she’s also underused, as van Hove has cut Maria’s only solo, “I Feel Pretty.” It’s an unwise excision since Maria’s effervescent optimism, soon to be crushed, sets up the tragedy that steals her imagined future away from her.

Outside of the two romantic leads, who have the space to acquit themselves nicely, most of the characters—Anita, Riff (Dharon E. Jones), Bernardo (Amar Ramasar)—get lost. The erasure of Anita, at least, seems systematic. While impressions of Anitas past have been indelible (Chita Rivera on the original cast recording, Rita Moreno in the 1961 film, Karen Olivo in the 2009 bilingual revival), Ayala is underwhelming in the role, dwarfed not only by her predecessors, but by van Hove’s insistence on distracting the audience from everything Anita does.

First, he’s replaced the original, all-female version of the Anita-led “America” with the girls-versus-boys revision from Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s film adaptation; she has half as much there to do now. Meanwhile, every time she sings—whether in “America” or in “A Boy Like That,” her searing, transcendent duet with Maria—footage from elsewhere flashes across the stage. Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim meticulously shaped “A Boy Like That” to show how Maria convinces Anita to abandon her angry melody, quite literally, and join Maria’s prayer-like counterpoint line. For the entire song, Tony sprints through the street, dripping blood and sweat, in a never-ending slow-motion, zoomed-in shot. Did Sondheim write sharp, searing lyrics and did librettist Arthur Laurents carve this complex relationship between complex women for us to watch an action movie instead of listening?

Van Hove also errs by turning the scene in which the Jets attempt to rape Anita into a weirdly visceral, voyeuristic video frenzy. There’s a discomfitingly dismissive attitude toward women that runs throughout, especially given the production’s checkered backstory. Outside the theater, protests continue over the casting of Ramasar, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who was reinstated by the company after charges of non-consensually sharing explicit photographs of female dancers. Ramasar is a fine Bernardo (Maria’s brother and Anita’s boyfriend) but not so special here as to justify the controversial casting.

The best productions of West Side Story have always throbbed with propulsiveness, even with an intermission and a lot of dialogue (much of Laurents’s script has been tossed out here). Van Hove’s initial assessment that West Side Story required compressing down to 90 minutes in order to feel gritty and urgent was wrong, but I can imagine a more worthwhile production that used van Hove’s cuts yet engaged more seriously and meaningfully with the show’s treatment of race and gender. Both this material, and this cadre of performers, would be up for the task. The score still soars, and the principal cast, mostly, offers stellar performances of challenging roles that would be impressive in any production. Van Hove is the only one caught with egg on his face—or, if not egg, a whole lot of rain.

West Side Story is now playing at the Broadway Theatre.

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