West Side Story: Total Momsical Failure

Tony and Maria pulled apart, photo @ Sara Krulwich
Every year I try to take my mom to one Broadway musical. My mom requires two things: 1) it be a classic musical; and 2) it's not R-rated. So this year I bought tickets to Ivo van Hove's highly discussed revival of West Side Story. When it was over my mom beat a hasty retreat out of the theater. I asked her what she thought. "I wanted to see West Side Story, not a home video of West Side Story!"

The barely visible set against the video, photo @ Sara Krulwich
As you might have heard, the video projections (designed by Luke Halls) in this revival of West Side Story are constant, and often overshadow the action. The entire back wall is a huge screen where a mix of pre-shot and live-action videos are projected. The two sets (Doc's Drugstore and the dress shop) are recessed in the very back of the stage. Actual action within these shots is almost invisible to audience members, who instead see the video. It did get tiresome after awhile to see a blank stage as the actors were recessed in the very back set and all we saw was video. I take it on a matter of faith that the video was live shot because the set is so small and so far backstage that you can't really see the action there. Also, the lack of any other sets meant that "Tonight" didn't have one of the best Romeo and Juliet "adaptations" -- the NYC apartment fire escape as the "balcony." My mom really missed that part -- "I wanted to see the fire escape," she said.

The video was very distracting and I can see why my mom disliked it. But that wasn't why I felt that this revival of West Side Story ultimately fell very off the mark.

the mixed race Jets, photo @ Sarah Krulwich
My issue with this revival was that it was clear that none of the creatives had spent much time in NYC. If they had they never would have made the Jets a mixed-race gang that fought the "PR's" (Sharks). I've been working in NYC public schools for over 13 years and any teacher will tell you that gangs in NYC are segregated not only by race but by specific places of origin (people of Jamaican origin vs. those of Dominican origin vs. those of Mexican origin) and often by specific blocks or housing projects. The whole "let's fight the spicks" mishmash Jets felt false from the very first notes of the Prologue.

Jets and Sharks meeting, photo @ Jan Versweyveld
Second way these people aren't from NYC: the Jets and Sharks all had similar looking tattoos and no one threw up gang signs. A first year teacher could tell how the signs immediately mark someone as affiliated with a specific gang. The tattoo designer Andrew Sotomayar went for a specific aesthetic rather than making the tattoos gang symbols. (Edit: someone else who saw the show said there were gang-specific tattoos. Good catch!)

Third sign these people are not from NYC: the laughable attempts by choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker to mimic "street" movements. To be blunt, it all looks very European modern dance TRYING to be "break dance." Big leg kicks to the side, squiggling of the torso and rolling around on the floor -- typical modern dance movements. It's okay that the choreography doesn't live up to Jerome Robbins' iconic original choreography, but when "Cool" looks more Pina Bausch than hip hop/break dance, there's a problem.

All this might have been okay if Ivo van Hove hadn't tried so hard to "update" this West Side Story to modern day. Modern day dress, modern day issues ("Officer Krupke" has a bunch of video projections of police brutality, the video often takes us to what looks like 2020 NYC's side alleys, Docs is now a bodega and the dress shop is a sweat shop). And here we run into another huge problem: West Side Story's book is very specific to a time and place. There's lingo that would never be used today.
As an example here's the lyrics to "Officer Krupke"
Dear kindly Judge, your Honor
My parents treat me rough With all their marijuana
They won't give me a puff
They didn't wanna have me
But somehow I was had Leapin' lizards! That's why I'm so bad!  
[DIESEL (As Judge)] Right! Officer Krupke, you're really a square;
This boy don't need a judge, he needs an analyst's care!
It's just his neurosis that oughta be curbed
He's psychologically disturbed! 

 Will someone please point out that in 2020 no one talks about taking a "puff" of "marijuana"? No one calls judges "squares" anymore? That the street lingo has changed?  No one calls Puerto Rican "spicks" anymore, no one uses terms like "Daddy-O." When the Jets and Sharks look all tough and street and then use these "ok boomer" terms it takes one out of the moment. It just feels false. The dated nature of the book was painfully apparent in all the scenes with Doc, Lt. Shrank and Krupke. The actors did their best but they sounded so 1950's. So square.

In this case perhaps it would have been better not to update at all, or to revise the book to better reflect 2020 street lingo? Stephen Sondheim (the lyricist) is still alive and has seen this production.

Tony and Maria, photo @ Jan Versweyveld
Isaac Powell (Tony) and Shereen Pimentel (Maria) are sweet, but we run into yet another problem: Powell sings in the contemporary musical theater style. Leonard Bernstein's score is old-fashioned musical theater and often operatic. For example you could hear the entire audience sigh when Powell started singing "Maria." But his slight tenor couldn't really sustain the long musical lines of "Maria." He started bleating.

Tony and Maria aren't very individual in this production. Maria's one solo "I Feel Pretty" is cut, and to be honest Powell had better chemistry with the Riff (Dharon E. Jones). My mom was very vocal in that she felt that Powell and Pimentel weren't directed right. "They aren't cute, or appealing, or anything." In this production Tony gives Maria a stuffed monkey. That's one of the few moments where Tony and Maria seem like actual people.

Amar Ramasar, photo @ Sara Krulwich
The casting of Amar Ramasar as Bernardo is super duper controversial. There's been weekly protests and articles about the protests in the NYTimes. But the production has been steadfast in its support of Ramasar and after watching tonight's performance one could understand why: he's one of the best things about this production. For one, he can really dance and he sold the choreography better than anyone else. (He's danced Bernardo in Robbins' West Side Story Suite at NYCB for many years.) More than that, he was one of the few actors onstage to exude genuine menace. It helps that he's older than the rest of the cast -- he just looks like a guy who's been on the streets for many years rather than young Broadway dancers who just got cast in their first show. His singing is okay.

Ramasar and Ayala, photo @ Jan Versweyveld
The other standout was Yesenia Ayala as Anita. She too can really dance, and she also really acts too. She was one of the few who actually "acted" in the video scenes -- there was real fear in her eyes during the gang rape scene. Her Anita is the type anyone who has lived in NYC has run into -- the tough, self-sufficient, earthy Latin American lady in a shop. The energy of the show picked up whenever Bernardo and Anita were onstage -- in fact, "America" was one of the few musical numbers my mom liked, because: 1. Actual live dancing with a minimum of video intrusion; and 2. It was fun and saucy and matched the music.

Otherwise Ivo van Hove has trimmed the show to be a quick beeline towards the bloodbath. It runs one hour 45 minutes on the dot. And here lies the final issue with this revival: the show moves fast and the dead bodies pile up quickly.  But Leonard Bernstein's score isn't a sprint towards tragedy. West Side Story endures because the score has moments of such romantic beauty. Those moments need to breathe. The audience needs to soak in "Maria" and "Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart" before everyone dies.

The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story isn't just that so many young people are dead by the time the curtain falls. But that these young people are fun, and romantic, and worth caring about. Ivo van Hove's direction is slick but soulless -- all that video constantly tells audience exactly where to look but never reaches the heart.

At the end of the evening Shereen Pimentel made a speech dedicating the performance to Carol Lawrence who was in the audience. Carol Lawrence is the original Broadway Maria. This seems as good of a time as any to show a video of the WSS OBC:


  1. Agreed! We took our grandchildren, 14 and 11 to see their first Broadway show. They loved it but I was disappointed.

    1. Hmm a colleague of mine took his 14 year old daughter to see it and he said his daughter disliked it

  2. I had forgotten how long ago lip-synching had become the
    Broadway norm.

  3. This was a refreshing take on a classic. As compared to a revival I saw in the 80's with Debbie Allen as Anita, where the theater was half empty to start and down to about 20% after intermission. Maybe mom would have loved that version because no one else did.

    1. My mom is very old fashioned but I love experimental theater. I liked the Daniel Fish Oklahoma!

  4. Brava, Ivy! This review is a perfect reason why I keep reading you. Informed and intelligent. Thank you.

  5. I thought the singing was not so great as Broadway shows usually are. The stage presence must of been on a low low budget. Really was no background stage, just video screen. Actors were hidden in a lot of shots, I played for Broadway show, felt like I got a show i could have been more pleased watching it at home on tv, so I could have turned it off. Save your money, first Broadway show I have seen I didn't like.

  6. In the end, West Side Story is a love story, and the disasters that ensue when bigotry interrupts when someone falls in love with the "wrong" person. To treat the admittedly lively "I Feel Pretty" as if it were inconsequential to the plot, is a reflection of the director's basic misunderstanding of the plot. This is not a story just about gang violence..Tony and Maria represent the opposite of that and should be constantly contrasted with the the voices of intolerance and ignorance of the "other". I'm all for trying to bring older musicals into the present when appropriate and well thought out, but this sounds like a deliberate ignoring of the core idea of the musical just to do something "modern" and "different'.


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