Ivo van Hove‘s brilliant reimagining of “West Side Story” tells gritty tale of immigrants, racism and police brutality

By Lucy Komisar

I remember seeing “West Side Story” at City Center as a high school student in the late 1950s. We all laughed at the Officer Krupke (Danny Wolohan) comic riff by gang members whose satire of pop psychology has them sing, “We are no good because we are misunderstood.” Not so funny now in Ivo van Hove‘s version, with Krupke‘s nasty racism. Krupke holds a gun and aims it at blacks while someone takes his photo with a phone.

Isaac Powell as Tony and Shereen Pimentel as Maria, photo Julieta Cervantes.

Lt. Schrank (Thomas Jay Ryan), the modern racist cop, attacks the Puerto Ricans. “Bernardo, get your trash out of here.” He tells the native Jets to “make nice with the PRs,” the Sharks, or he will beat them up.

The Laurents/Sondheim story of a Hamlet style romance between two cultural opposites, Tony (Isaac Powell) and Maria (Shereen Pimentel), turns much tougher, more realistic, darker, grittier than it‘s ever been before.

You get a sense of the Puerto Ricans as targeted immigrants: Anita (Yesenia Ayala), the girlfriend of the Sharks leader, to Maria: “Better get rid of your accent. And of the native gang‘s own racism and brutality, including their abuse of women. There‘s a horrific start of a sexual assault on Anita by the Jets when she goes to find Tony at Doc’s Drug Store.

Van Hove‘s direction is sometimes brilliant, sometimes distracting. He uses videos (by Luke Hall) a lot.

Dharon E. Jones as Jets leader Riff and Amar Ramasar as Sharks leader Bernardo, photo Jan Versweyveld.

When we see closeups of people who are small figures on stage, the videos are distracting, we don‘t know where to look. But when the videos create scenery within which the figures act, such as a street in the city with a subway car moving in the background, it is powerful, almost magical.

A war council is covered by two guys with video cameras. The cop calls the Puerto Ricans spics. “I got the badge, you got the skin.” A taunted kid starts singing God Bless America. There‘s a video of another on the ground next to a cop car.

Sometimes the camera overwhelms. The parts that take place in Doc‘s Drug Store remind me too much of television. It becomes an amalgam of play and video.

The face-off, the gangs challenging each other, becomes a ballet, and the projection street background works, photo Jan Versweyveld.

The best part about the production is the dance. Choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker has created a terrific modern ballet using jazz and Latin music. Sometimes the whole production seems to be a ballet, as when Tony and Bernardo pull and are pulled apart by opposing sides.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Shereen Pimentel as Maria is charming, with a soaring soprano. Yesenia Ayala is a fine, edgy Anita.

Amar Ramasar as Sharks leader Bernardo with Yesenia Ayala as his girlfriend Anita, photo Jan Versweyveld.

Isaac Powell as Tony starts off rather mild, but hits a powerful stride in the iconic I just met a girl named “Maria” scene, which shows him twisting on the ground in the (video) street, as if he can‘t control the body assailed by his feelings.

This is not your grandma’s “West Side Story.”

West Side Story.” Book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Ivo van Hove, based on a conception and original direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins, video design by Luke Halls, choreography by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York City. 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400. Opened Feb 20, 2020. Closed by Broadway shut-down, no word about reopening. 1 hr 45. 3/22/20. Also on NY Theatre Wire.

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