Video has a starring role in the dazzling new revival of West Side Story.
Live close-ups of the charismatic young cast in the Arthur Laurents/Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim classic are projected on an enormous surface at the rear of the Broadway Theatre’s stage. As designed by Luke Halls, the video aims to flesh out the interior lives of the doomed rival gangs in the Romeo-and-Juliet tragedy. Recorded exterior shots show the gritty New York streets where the Sharks and Jets live.
Like an arena pop concert or sporting event with instant replay, there’s a lot to take in and enjoy. And the approach by Amsterdam-based avant-garde director Ivo van Hove offers tantalizing possibilities for the industry. If creators of aspiring blockbusters can use video to enhance the experience of those in the back of the house, isn’t that worth exploring?
The production is operatic in scope, with some 50 actors on the sprawling bare stage. In place of finger snapping and Jerome Robbins’ riffs on ballet, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s choreography is contemporary and very physical. (Two principal performers were injured during previews, one of whom left the company.) The leads are wonderful, particularly Amar Ramasar as Bernardo, the chief of the Sharks, who dances with the proficiency of the New York City Ballet star that he is. Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel bring heat and vocal range to Tony and Maria.
Bernstein’s symphonic score sounds glorious in the hands of music director Alexander Gemignani, whose father, Paul, has conducted a dozen other Sondheim shows on Broadway.
And yet, this West Side Story is more dynamic than moving. I wasn’t convinced that video was a necessary artistic choice here. Too much of the drama takes place at the rear of the stage on hidden sets equipped with multiple cameras, some of it entirely out of the audience’s view. And while it’s laudable that the Jets are racially diverse, it’s not entirely believable that they would be so xenophobic in 2020 New York.
Even with the scary tattoos (designed by Andrew Sotomayor), the climactic rumble has the menace of a dispute between students of Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School and the Professional Performing Arts School.
As for the lyrics, Sondheim himself wrote in his 2010 book Finishing the Hat that many “suffer from a self-conscious effort to be what Lenny deemed ‘poetic.'”
Even so, West Side Story remains a sublime blending of book, music, dance, lyrics and now video. This production of the landmark 1957 musical may turn out to be influential in its own right.