WEST SIDE STORY now in previews at the Broadway Theatre, directed by wunderkind Ivo Van Hove (The Crucible; A View From the Bridge) is electrifying. Its conceit is that it is both theatre and cinema – a nod to the youth and young adults of this generation always snapping selfies and recording life with their phone cameras. The opening sequence offers movie screen size head shots on the back wall of the stage of each of the gang members, Jets and Sharks, as the actors stand in rows along the stage proscenium. They’re no longer just “gangs,” but distinct individuals, each with their own angers and issues. What a great way to introduce the “war of the immigrants verses the native born.” Van Hove cues the tension at the onset and it never lets up, giving this musical drama more Shakespearean dynamics than I have ever experience in previous productions, including the 1961 movie. Presented without an intermission, the drama of two young lovers thwarted by hate-filled rivalries maintains suspense throughout, holding the audience captive yet riveted.
The cast of astounding young professionals is refreshingly multi-ethnic and there’s a nod to sexual diversity that firmly sets this West Side Story in the 21st Century. These are young adults we recognize and with whom new generations should identify easily.
There are many standout performances beginning with Isaac Powell as Tony. He has a fine voice yet fittingly eschews it a few times here and there to convey a naturalism, almost conversational delivery suitable for a teenager who is meant to be both tough and tender. Shereen Pimentel, clearly trained in operatic vocal technique at Julliard, brings full bodied singing to her role as Maria and is especially good in the demanding “I Have a Love.” Both leads have the right look for their roles and act more playful and believably juvenile than many who have taken on these demanding roles in the past. Dharon E. Jones as Riff in his Broadway debut and New York City ballet dancer Amar Ramasar as Bernardo (last seen to great effect in the revival of Carousel) perfectly inhabit their roles and astound with their dancing as do Yesinia Ayala as Anita and Elijah Carter as Action.
The choreography inspired by the Jerome Robbins original but advanced to the steps of the modern age by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is breathtaking and jaw droppingly executed by a first-rate ensemble. My only reservation here concerns the backwall video honing in on individual dancers or groups to the detriment of the full picture displayed by the terrific company on stage.
There are also some new bits of orchestration by Jonathan Tunick that bring a fresh feel and surprising nuance to the score, conducted with aplomb by Alexander Gemignani. Mr. Gemignani is more often seen on Broadway as a performer (Carousel, Les Miserable revivals) yet now follows the path his father (Paul), a frequent Broadway Musical Director and Conductor.
Ivan Van Hove brings many thrilling touches to the staging. I will not reveal them here so you will not be bereft of surprises when you go. As the show is still in Previews until Opening Night February 20th, there may be more marvels in store. I recommend you get a feel for all that awaits by going to the show’s official website: https://westsidestorybway.com/ There you may get tickets directly from the venue and not second hand. And I highly recommend that you go. I may even return!