Sunday, February 09, 2020

West Side Story at the Broadway Theatre

In Ivo Van Hove's recreation of West Side Story it's not always easy, at first, to tell the Jets from the Sharks. Each gang is now racially mixed, all are heavily tattooed, and show off some kind of distinctive bling around their necks. As they stand at the apron of the stage at the start of the performance, and sway to the right and to the left, these gang members share the look with MS-13, the Bloods and the Crips rather than with the original teen hoodlums Arthur Laurents had in mind when he adapted Romeo and Juliet and placed it in New York's dangerous San Juan Hill neighborhood, the very place where today Lincoln Center stands, and where Robert Wise shot the 1961 film adaptation of this 1957 Broadway musical. Gone also is the Jerome Robbins choreography, in favor of an even more acrobatic style, thankfully still rooted on ballet, by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. You won't find any finger snapping here to signify they are hip cool cats. Far from it. These are dangerous individuals you do not want to meet on a dark New York street.

The Ivo Van Howe treatment is well-known by now: minimalism married to dazzling technology, often using HD video. On Broadway he has re-thought Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge and The Crucible, as well as last year's dazzling rethinking of Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay  Network starring Bryan Cranston. This time, with a cast made up of mostly young unknowns, he has re-thought this classic musical in ways that often delight us, as well as confound us. The music is still Leonard Bernstein at his finest, minus the song "I Feel Pretty," cut, I presume because it slows down the action. (So does the aria "Un Bel Di" in Puccini's Madama Butterfly). I get the feeling that it's out because of its inherent kitschy feeling. The production also plays in one single act nearing two hours. This is a no-nonsense, tight production, as serious and as stark as a Greek tragedy. No laughing aloud. I'm surprised "Gee, Officer Krupke" remained intact, although it has lost some of its comedic values given the seriousness of Mr. Van Hove's approach. Luckily "America" still works as a marvelous example of great music and witty lyrics by the then young Stephen Sondheim, the only surviving member of the original creative team.

During the 1980's many of the classic shows of the 1950's and 1960's were revived, often with the same orchestrations as well as the same scenic conceptions. In fact, many of the original stars of those shows came back to reprise their past triumphs. Carol Channing in Hello Dolly, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof and Richard Burton in Camelot. Yul Brynner made a cottage industry out of The King and I, reviving it over and over again, even as he was dying of cancer. And, of course Jerome Robbins returned to Broadway to direct West Side Story in 1980, using the same scenic, lighting and costume designs employed in the original production. While the world of musical comedy remained stagnant, opera was being rethought in Europe. The 1976 version of Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung at Bayreuth by Patrice Chereau led the way for experimentation in the lyric theater. The practice is very much the current trend. Depending where you stand it's either "Regietheater" (theater of the director) or "Eurotrash."

What is dazzling in this production is the use of HD cameras. The live feed is projected upstage, behind the playing area, on a huge screen that captures the characters up close. It is like watching a movie and a theater piece all at the same time. The camera is vital to the production. The two main sets, Doc's candy store and Anita's sweatshop,  dressed in hyper-realism by Jan Versweyveld (Mr. Van Hove's partner), are upstage with nooks and crannies out of the audience's view. However, the camera follows the action inside these hidden corners and broadcasts it to us revealing the amazing detail. Why these theatrical settings are pushed out of the way, and only allowed to be seen through the camera lens is one of the questions we must ask the creative team.

Ultimately, the real important question we must ask ourselves is if a musical like West Side Story is able to successfully navigate the world of "Regietheater" and still emerge unscathed. Save for a major incongruity: 1950's lingo sputtered by a crowd that looks and behaves more at ease in the hip-hop hood, the answer is a resounding yes. My feeling is that Broadway audiences will accept this modernization of a treasured warhorse as long as the performances are of such amazing caliber, especially Dharon Jones as Riff, and Isaac Powell (who is back after he injured himself during previews) as Tony. Over on the Shark's turf, the dancing mastery of New York City Ballet's Amar Ramasar (with whom I shared the stage years ago when we performed another piece by Bernstein, Chichester Psalms), as well as the talented Yesenia Ayala as Anita and Shereen Pimentel as Maria bring fresh approaches to these characters.

The production should have opened last Thursday, but due to Mr. Powell's injury the official opening is now February 20th. Now Mr. Powell is back and sounding wonderful, especially in his two main songs "Something's Coming" and the ever popular "Maria."

Whatever you think of this approach towards classic musicals, this is a major revival by some of the most talented creative minds working today. Their aim is to bring a breath of fresh air to a wondrous piece of our creative past. By doing so, they revitalize the theater and bring a masterpiece to a new generation of audiences that will be as thrilled as those lucky enough to have been at the Winter Garden Theatre back in 1957. What is now running at the Broadway Theatre is a West Side Story for 2020 and beyond.

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