Until you have seen Ivo VanHove’s reexperiencing of West Side Story you have never seen West Side Story. It is magnificent. There is no question that without the prodigious talents that created the original borrowing- it is,of course, Romeo and Juliet reimagined- that the present, deeply reconceived version of their initial work, by Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Steven Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, not only honors their work but carries it to heights previously unrealized. The present West Side Story is the definitive West Side Story. Never has Bernstein’s music been so achingly integral, never the warring gang factions so brutally beautiful, never the love story so poignant. It is now, at last, a masterpiece.
And it happens thanks to Director Van Hoves’s sweeping, overall grasp, using today’s expanded stage technologies in ways not possible back in 1957 when the show opened to extraordinary acclaim, that acclaim sure to be heightened by the combined, exacting scenic and lighting design by Jan Versweyeld whose empathic insights are vastly enhanced by Luke Halls’s video designs, An D’Huys’s pitch perfect costumes, Andrew Sotomayor’s wracking makeup designs, all supporting and merging with extraordinary choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s brilliant company of actor/dancers in the service of the iconic original. Now far better.
The entire, unified production seethes from the get-go with emotion, from its dark, studied early violence to its throat clutching ending. Currents jangle the nerves, none more daringly than director Van Hove’s choice of casting his two ill-starred young lovers with breathtaking unknowns: loose, cool, madly passionate Isaac Powell as Tony, irresistibly love struck Maria as irresistible Shereen Pimentel. They are so hot. Which is simply crucial. Everything stems from them. Van Hove wins big.
He’s brought the show up from sixty-some years ago to the present day. So much has changed. So much has not. Gangs then, gangs now. Tony belongs to the Jets. American born toughs, street rats, gym rats, big mouths, whose hold on their turf is slipping. Because there are those immigrants, the Sharks, Puerto Ricans, fighting for survival, fighting to belong, of course Americans, too, but it’s so hard. Maria is Puerto Rican. She and her inevitable love don’t even know each other.
Nor would they if it weren’t for overachieving school teacher miss Glad Hand (on the nose Pippa Peartree)who insists these two groups mix and mingle in a school dance. Tony loses himself in “Something’s Coming” and we are bewitched. Tony and Maria see each other for the first time and cannot help themselves. They are drawn to each other despite their whole gangs pulling them apart. Nothing can keep them apart. Bernstein’s soaring music is new, refreshed. When Tony sings “Maria” it’s as if you’ve never heard it before. “Tonight “ is almost iridescent in its incandescence of their love.
Surrounding them, the immense Broadway stage is scaled with huge visuals brilliantly executed, dwarfing everyone. It’s a directorial statement: not only are the minutia of their little lives painted large, as large as they must feel them, which cinema has perfected as a medium of telling, but from that cinema, the little people step forward live, as only the theater can present, and live, as only the theater can impact. The combination waxes and wanes throughout and its magic is totally new but so readily accepted it’s as if it were inevitable. It colors everything.
The sheer brutality of the police response to these savages, these maggots is tempered by the vastness of the visual world around them. The police, too, are tiny, even as they strut and threaten. Lt. Schrank (marvelous Thomas Jay Ryan) is so badass; Officer Krupke (fine Danny Wolohan) is bitingly, demeaningly bludgeoned in a raging “Gee,, Officer Krupke” number that used to be played for laughs. Now, it’s a killer.
Without question, the most powerful scene in the entire production is the Rumble.The rumble, a total bad blood fight between the gangs, cannot be headed off by newly in love Tony, but he wins grudging approval of a “fair fight”, meaning no weapons. However, Bernardo ( Amar Ramasar) Maria’s brother, betrays them. He needs his knife. The fighting is ugly. As Tony tries to stop Bernardo from using his knife he turns it against Bernardo and kills him. The brilliant orchestration by Jonathan Tunick of the entire sequence is so intense you hardly seem aware of the rightness of the Bernstein score under music director Alexander Gemigniani, but you’re very aware of the tragedies that explode.
There are so many vivid performances in the large, superlative cast of thirty-three it’s awful not to name them all; Daniel Oreskes as ineffectual Doc; Yesenia Ayala as glittering Anita, Bernado’s exciting girl friend; Dharon E. Jones as Riff, the leader of the Jets; so many more. Bravo, brava one and all.
West Side Story. At the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street. Tickets: $39-$229. 1hr 45 min. 212-239-6200. Open run.
At last, a great West Side Story is now a masterpiece.