There’s thrilling promise in the long tracking shot that fills a cyclorama spread across the vast expanse of the Broadway Theatre’s stage to begin West Side Story. As Leonard Bernstein’s overture intentionally evokes the jagged primal suspense of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the camera draws us into an urban jungle pulsing with quiet menace. Streetlamps cast an eerie glow on shadowed warehouses lining the empty street that slowly fills with teenage boys and girls all but exploding with suppressed force-fields of sex, of rage and anger, of possibility.
On stage, they arrange themselves in opposing camps as their individual images are cast above on the big screen, their expressions isolated as they look one another over, itching for violent connection. Tattooed, hoodied, accented with 10-karat bling and wielding smartphones, they’re kids already well-rehearsed in the language of hate, in evading the adult gaze while furtively seeking a killing ground to vent their unendurable frustrations. As they line up, backs to the audience, the camera reveals their private fury and their impossible youth.
For the Belgian director Ivo Van Hove, here in this overture electrified by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s staccato choreography, is his signature convergence of live action and video imagery at its most effective. No bus or subway to the southwest Bronx could more effectively plant us in this bloodless cityscape of aborted dreams. I thought: This is not my parents’ West Side Story. This is not even yesterday’s West Side Story.
The perspective quickly changes, literally, when the action shifts from the impromptu street meeting where a rumble between the Jets and Sharks has been arranged to Jets HQ at Doc’s drug store. Jets leader Riff (Dharon Jones) has come to persuade cofounder Tony (Isaac Powell) to rejoin the gang for the big fight later that night. No dice, says Tony. I’ve gone legit, working for Doc (reliably wizened Daniel Oreskes), and besides, I’ve had a premonition that “Something’s Coming,” something good.
And here that extraordinary interplay between the video (by Luke Halls) and stage (the sets and crepuscular lighting are by Jan Versweyveld, the up-to-date costumes are by An d'Huys) becomes something considerably less wonderful. The screen image of the meeting at Doc’s overwhelms the actors, who are working in a tiny mousehole carved out of the screen. The live action is obscured, and the gang members – huge on the screen – might as well be ants scurrying around in and out of sight. We rely on the cameramen to relay what’s going on.
Now if I wanted to see a bad movie in a Broadway theater, I’d have gone to The Irishman at the Belasco.
Van Hove’s West Side Story isn’t bad solely because he subverts the live action to video images and minimizes the living, churning story at hand. He’s compressed the show to a single unbroken act of 105 minutes, eliminating material that allows the story to breathe. That crucial oxygen was originally supplied by book writer Arthur Laurents, composer Bernstein, director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and, at the time, novice lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Collaboration, as Sondheim stresses in his own recounting of the show’s gestation in Finishing the Hat, was central to making all the elements merge into that most memorable whole.
Van Hove, on the other hand, reveals an obsession with impactful elements, whether or not they make any sense. The rumble takes place under a highway overpass, but when the fighting begins, a drenching rain soaks the players. How’s that? The rain returns for the final scene as well; it’s a very soggy show.
Anita’s (Yesenia Ayala) bridal salon is now a sweatshop where the Sharks’ girlfriends work. The video imagery of the factory wrecks the intimacy of her scenes with love-struck Maria (the immensely appealing Shereen Pimentel). The balcony scene (one of the many Romeo and Juliet elements that Laurents et al brilliantly repurposed in urban terms, setting it on a fire escape) features neither balcony nor fire escape. What it does have is a lot of Sharks and Jets buzzing around, as if this scene of wrenching intimacy were being refashioned for a Tik-Tok video.
A similar aesthetic imbalance undermined Van Hove’s production of Network, and like that show, West Side Story mixes filmed and live video. I frequently realized that what I was watching on the screen was different, if disorientingly similar, to what was happening among the ants below. Like when you realize the movie on your TV is out of synch with the soundtrack.
When the exploded images seem to be the whole point of the enterprise, well you’ve lost me. I thought of Daniel Fish’s selective use of video in last season’s equally upending revival of Oklahoma!. Notably, when Curly describes the glories of suicide to Pore Jud in his little room on the ranch: The theater went to black as their faces were blown up on a screen. The effect was haunting – establishing, rather than eliminating, the scary, mean intimacy of the encounter. Here, even Tony and Maria’s touching love duet “One Hand, One Heart” fails to achieve that kind of impact in this reckless revival.
What this show can boast is a magnificent score, re-orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick. Even in abbreviated form, an incomparable score is unshackled from the suite Bernstein later fashioned from it. The music alone can make you swoon.
“The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning,” Walter Kerr wrote in the Herald Tribune, when the show opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1957. Sixty-three years later, I still fell under that music’s spell, even if I was feeling somewhat less than aglow.