nohway

A “WEST SIDE” FOR OUR TIME (AGAIN)

In Uncategorized on March 7, 2020 at 9:20 pm
Screenshot 2020-03-07 at 4.14.06 PM
This much is true: there is just no denying the excitement generated by the Ivo van Hove-directed revival of WEST SIDE STORY in its initial moments, as the actors file onstage to the opening bars of the greatest of all musical scores, as you scramble to make up your mind about the director’s ubiquitous use of huge video projections of the onstage action running simultaneously. These are intrusive throughout the show, but helpful if you want a better look at the actors’ faces from your front mezzanine seat, which is actually ideal, better than the orchestra as you are able to see the patterns and viscerally feel the real impact  of  Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s brilliant, brilliantly modern, sexy and funky yet breathlessly lyrical  choreography), and the details of the now not-period almost too modish costumes by An D’Huys (they’re actually terrific).
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Overall, however, the videos are distracting, and I’d advise you, in the interests of actually experiencing live theater,  to try and keep your eyes trained on the actors, with maybe an occasional peep at the screen if you really have to. ]
Whatever hesitations you may feel about the staging – which too often has the action frustratingly taking place offstage or obscured, at the very back of the stage, lost in a set dwarfed by that giant screen – initially are soon swept away by the beauty and vitality of its young cast, joyously being put through their rigorous dance moves and, when everything finally settles down enough for Isaac Powell’s Tony – the best I’ve ever seen – to sing “Something’s Coming” in a voice of near-unearthly loveliness, possessing a sexy croon, the most meltingly sweet head voice and – Allah be praised – a throbbing vibrato which he, unlike every other Broadway singer basically, is not afraid to use – magic truly happens.
Powell, who somewhat resembles Shia LeBeouf, has all the requisite galvanizing youth, endless energy and innocence, with an authentic layering of street savvy, to BE Tony not just act him, and he brings exhilarating fresh choices to his interpretation, like the way he stumbles over the name which becomes, of course, the show’s immortally gorgeous love anthem, “Maria,” repeating it in various iterations as if he’s trying it on for size, wondering how it will fit into his young life, before positively soaring to the ceiling of the Broadway Theater with it. His Maria, Shereen Pimental, has all of Powell’s qualities, and how refreshing it is to see the character played as tougher than the usual dewy-eyed virgin, sticking a hesitant toe into the waters of life, not to mention fuller-bodied. This Maria is so hungry for life and experience, especially before she has to marry her boring, assigned mate for life, Chino (Jacob Guzman), she fairly belly flops into a charged, all too brief first adult experience (as van Hoeve keeps reminding us with above-the-stage flashes of the exact time as the play progresses). If Pimental does not emerge as fully as Powell, it is largely because, until her final, very powerfully acted big showdown with both gangs, who’ve all had a hand in Tony’s demise, she simply is not given that much to do, and you realize how unlike its Shakespeare original the show is, for it is Romeo not Juliet, who is catalyst for what happens, and he gets all the songs.
Maria actually only has one song which could be considered a solo, “I Feel Pretty,” which has been cut. A mistake, I think, as the character needs it, as does the show, which has all those comic – tiresome – moments for the Jets and yet nothing light-hearted for the ladies. I’m sure it did not fit in with von Hoeve’s relentless gloom & doom vision of inner city life, which like, if you’ll excuse me, composer Stephen Sondheim’s avowed dislike of the song as being too lyrically sophisticated for a Puerto Rican immigrant girl, I find condescending and rather racially insensitive. Who’s not to say that Maria was maybe a bookworm, wanting to improve her English if nothing else, so rhyming “alarming” and “charming” ain’t that much of a stretch? (We expect the leads of any musical to be exceptional in some ways, so why not?) And Ivo, Ivo, Ivo, Latinos do more than just fight.

Whatever, the imbalance in terms of character development, there’s no denying the riveting, earthy chemistry between the two leads. Without it, notions like throwing out the balcony/fire escape gimmick for their first big love scene, and replacing that with the different gangs literally pulling them away from each other, would never have worked as effectively and heart-stoppingly as it does, underlining the impossibility of their love with such obviousness.
A song that I would have gladly seen cut is “Gee, Officer Krupke.” (It’s like those bloody two songs in “My Fair Lady” for old Doolittle – tiresome highjinks when we wanna get back to the story.) All of the cop scenes here play with an uncertainty and faulty tone which maybe bespeaks the charged times we are living in, outside the theater, regarding hyper-sensitivity about the law and how it deals with minorities. Thomas Jay Ryan, ordinarily an excellent actor, is seriously off-key as the menacing racist Lt. Schrank, bringing the wrong kind of old movie tough guy period flavor.  And the song, as with all the Jets songs here, with its antiquated slang, is a most uneasy fit with the boldly contemporary dance moves. As your eye thrills to those spectacular dervish bodies, your ear is rejecting dated lyrics seemingly culled from overheard conversation in a 1950s beatnik dive
Amar Ramasar makes a fine, smoulderingly dangerous, sexy Bernardo, but his partner, Yesenia Ayala, is surprisingly tepid in the always surefire role of Anita; time may find her finding her way more into the part, and bringing some real color and passion to it.
The other gang members are ably acted and superlatively danced, and whether anachronistic or not, I was thrilled by the presence of that male same sex couple also being permitted to express their love and life, dancing to that superlative music. (Personally, I haven’t seen a show that actually made me want to dance as this one does, in eons.) And here, I believe I should tip my hat to the entire ensemble, who were said to have also had a choreographic hand in things, for, after presenting them with the steps, De Keersmaeker relied on them to tweak it into something more ethnic, funkier and sensual, which they have. (“So they basically all start in fourth position,” I overheard one very impressed and stunning, young black male dancer say to his equally comely friend, as they exited, afterwards.)
The multi-ethnic casting and similar chic streetwear of both gangs has baffled some, it not being easy to tell them apart, especially in the fight scenes. This I did not mind so much, as they’re all equally culpable and tragic; it’s not about rooting for one gang over the other. What I did find objectionable and a near total show ruiner for me was the director’s decision, after Tony kills Bernardo, to show him running away in an interminable, downright stupid, huge hokey closeup, his shirt bloodied and face distraught. Von Hoeve’s timing, pretty accurate up to that point, couldn’t have been worse,and it’s a blessed shame that not one person on the production stepped up to him and said, “We’ve given your head with the rain effects – AGAIN – never mind how perilous it is for the performers, as the stage becomes ultra-slippery. But that bloody video of Isaac is way too cornball.”
The man, who obviously has designs on directing a movie, just needs to have someone needlepoint a cushion – or else a neon sign – for his office reading “Stage is stage/Film is film/Never the twain shall meet.” So, yes, the new WEST SIDE STORY is a mixed bag, but what is good is pretty damn glorious.   

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