It’s always especially disappointing when you build up hopes about something that, in the reality, doesn’t live up to your expectations.
So it was with the revamped musical West Side Story. We snatched up tickets as soon as they became available. I had seen the musical performed several times over the years in Washington and had watched the movie (1961) many times. Those experiences framed what I was hoping to see in the new production, though I recognized that it had been “updated” for a more modern vibe. I avoided reviews for the most part and thus was unaware of what I quickly came to regard as a catastrophically bad decision: the cast appears on stage in front of what amounts to a stage-sized movie screen as a backdrop. In many scenes, including important ensemble dances, a “film” of the performers appears behind them as they perform on the stage, a multi-media event rather than a play that relies on stagecraft to create its context imagery. Using film for background buildings would be fine but showing a solo singer on the street with the camera viewpoint in the background slowly advancing and shadowy figures moving in the rear was just bizarre.
We found this novelty severely distracting. In addition to dance scenes, there were movies playing behind the performers inside apartments and in the drug store that is a main hang-out scene for the gangs. Sometimes only the movie was playing, while at others there was also action visible on the stage with the movie playing behind.
If I had wanted to see the movie again, I could have done so for less than the $109 we paid for last-row orchestra seats.
There were other less dramatic problems, the most prominent for me being that the director (I assume) moved the “Gee, Officer Krupke” piece, a humorous play on the foibles of sociological and legal thinking about juvenile delinquency, into late in the “second day” of the show when bad and ominous things have already happened and are portended. I understand it was that way in the original musical and was moved forward in the movie, to some controversy. See https://bit.ly/35m41o1 Nonetheless, it is a strikingly discordant note late in the show and I cannot accept the reasoning behind putting the song there.
All that said, there are many positives. You know a show is great when, despite knowing precisely how it’s going to end, you are still moved by it. Such is true with West Side Story. The ultimate moral idea – that hate breeds destruction and little else – is as powerful, maybe more so, now than when the show debuted in 1957. It is, as Yogi Berra famously said, déjà vu all over again. Shereen Pimentel, who plays Maria, has a Julliard-educated voice that could shake the rafters loose. Probably the star dancer was Yesenia Ayala who plays Bernardo’s girlfriend. It was hard to take your eyes off of her in the ensemble numbers, especially the highlight of the evening (for me), America.
The dancing overall was extraordinary, despite a lot of talk about changing the more ballet-driven originals by Jerome Robbins to a more modern style. We didn’t notice a real difference. The set pieces were very complex, involving both gangs and a lot of separate parts all well-integrated. If only they hadn’t also played the dancing on the movie screen background.
As a final observation, and this is not so much criticism as recognition of the difficulties of “updating” a classic like this, we had expected more “modern” motifs for the dialogue and, possibly, a more contemporary perspective on gang life. Instead, it’s the old Jets and Sharks going at each other for dominance of the neighborhood and using language like “daddy-o” and “buddy boy.” It’s also true, I suspect, that too much modernity would have made the story too dark and the romance at the heart of the morality play too unreal to capture the imagination.
In the end it’s still a great show and should be seen.