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West Side Story

An uneven but still potent retelling of the  classic Arthur Laurents - Leonard Bernstein - Stephen Sondheim  musical from experimental director Ivo Van Hove.

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Isaac Powell as Tony and Shereen Pimental as Maria in a scene from Ivo Van Hove’s production of “West Side Story” at the Broadway Theatre (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

[avatar user=”Joel Benjamin” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Joel Benjamin, Critic[/avatar]

I have never been a fan of Ivo Van Hove’s interpretations of American classics. From his tongue-tied, nudie versions of Eugene O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire at the New York Theatre Workshop (his New York home base for years) to his recent irritatingly impersonal, technology-heavy Network on Broadway he’s skated by, stunning audiences and critics with his technical dexterity (thanks to his brilliant creative team), irrational rashness and an irritating need to be an auteur who knows better than the playwrights whose work he has demolished.

His production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible totally missed the salient point of the play and, though he did manage to reveal some true human passion, his production of that same playwright’s A View From the Bridge missed the opportunity to show how the extremely explicit slice of fifties Brooklyn working class life written by Miller fed the tragedy with its operatic emotions and intra-family complexities.

Now he has taken on the Arthur Laurents/Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim/Jerome Robbins’ monument that is West Side Story at the Broadway Theatre and has achieved an interpretation that succeeds and fails in equal measure, communicating the angst of these young people while also distancing the audience from those very emotions.

Yesenia Ayala as Anita (center), Amar Ramasar as Bernardo (far right) in a scene from Ivo Van Hove’s production of “West Side Story” at the Broadway Theatre (Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld)

He has quietly moved the musical out of the fifties when the battles between the two gangs—Puerto Ricans vs. “Americans”—made dramatic sense.  Van Hove has chosen a less clear societal conflict to deal with.  The Puerto Ricans still form the Sharks gang, but the Jets are a more ambiguous mixture of black and white, ironically making their conflict more difficult to define.

That the members of the gangs use cell phones places them firmly in the present, particularly in the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number when the gang members take out their phones and photograph poor Krupke (Danny Wolohan, a bit too cartoonish) and Lt. Schrank (Thomas Jay Ryan, unable to overcome the dearth of lines in the script) as they make fools of themselves.

The other major change is the new choreography by European dance maker Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker who has taken Jerome Robbins’ familiar silhouettes and tense footwork and substituted them with arms and legs flung in all directions, lots of running about and a great deal of bodies bumping against bodies.  Her Mambo that is the centerpiece of “The Dance at the Gym” is too generic while her “America” ballet never explodes as it should.  Not Jerome Robbins, certainly, but barely suitable to the needs of the drama, perhaps.

The cast of Ivo Van Hove’s production of “West Side Story” at the Broadway Theatre (Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld)

Lately, Van Hove has totally immersed himself into video technology to communicate plays’ plots and emotional underpinnings relying less and less on the presence of actual human actors.  The idea that he might have reached the pinnacle of this philosophy in his recent Network, a play that might as well have been watched at home on a TV screen, is disavowed by West Side Story and its almost total dependence on images plastered on every surface of the set.

He has eliminated the intermission and the beloved “I Feel Pretty” as well as the climactic “Somewhere” ballet to make the show flow better.

His energetic cast is too often lost among the video images which is sad because they are a wonderfully scrappy group of actor/dancer/singers who give their all.  (I’m told that this is less of an issue in the higher reaches of the theatre due to the difference in perspective.)  To be sure, there are wonderful moments where the groups move about in cityscapes that constantly change around them, but these are countered by long scenes during which the actors appear to be lilliputian figures whose singing and emoting get lost in the confusion of giant faces.

An D’Huys’ costumes are appropriate for this group of characters but do little to distinguish to two opposing gangs.  Tom Gibbons’ sound design adds to the New York City ambiance.

Isaac Powell as Tony in a scene from Ivo Van Hove’s production of “West Side Story” at the Broadway Theatre (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

The young cast works hard, but no stars emerge.  The standouts are Isaac Powell as the ardent-voiced Tony; Shereen Pimentel as an earthy Maria who is clearly more worldly than as originally written; and Yesenia Ayala as the sexy Anita, girlfriend to the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (a weak-voiced and not especially charismatic Amar Ramasar whose past wayward sexual misadventures are being picketed outside the theatre).  Ayala never quite explodes, but leads the “America” dance number with sturdy, breathless ardor.  Dharon E. Jones doesn’t sing well enough to fill out the role of Riff, the Jets’ leader, but is earnest in his efforts.

Von Hove does admirable work evoking the speech and movement rhythms of these besieged young people.  The actors portray totally recognizable New York City ethnic types with more fearlessness than the original staging and even the 1961 film version when not done in by the overwhelming production.

Jan Versweyveld, Von Hove’s longtime creative partner, has designed both the scenery and lighting.  The former consists of almost ghostly bits and pieces that conjure a dark urban environment while the latter, combined with Luke Halls’ extraordinary videos, powered mostly by hand-held cameras, turns the stage of the Broadway Theatre into a moody, hopeless inner-city environment.

The brilliant score has been newly arranged by the veteran Jonathan Tunick and is directed with vigor by the equally experienced Alexander Gemignani.

West Side Story (through March 11, 2020)

Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit

Running time:  one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission

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About Joel Benjamin (564 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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