What’s Left of West Side Story

There’s not much positive to say about this novelty-for-novelty’s sake production. I can only join the ranks of my peers. Behemoth video – from enormous onstage faces to a projected scene in competition with a different one being acted, to up to 24 simultaneous images – makes it impossible to focus on actors.

Dharon E. Jones (Riff) and Isaac Powell (Tony)

Sometimes there ARE no actors, just video; at others, distracting backgrounds overwhelm live action. Scale means head microphones and faux kisses are blatantly obvious. You might experience vertigo from streets that move as if characters were traveling – they are not. A visual memory (travelogue) of Puerto Rico is cheap and out of place as is signage announcing time of day. (Luke Halls – video design)

Doc’s Drug Store and Maria’s place of employment look right, but both are too small and far away to see except on screen. Maria’s home/bedroom is observed only on media. We’re always once removed. (Jan Versweyveld – scenic design and lighting design) There must be half an hour of pouring rain -real water (danger for dancers). Undoubtedly signifying uncontainable passions, it seems to indicate concern the play is inadequate to its message.

Gone is the snap, vigor, threat, and exuberant athleticism of Jerome Robbins’ work. Choreography is mostly a mess. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s purported improvisational methods appear not to have cohered. Gang symbiosis is lost to almost total lack of synchronicity. Configuration/movement rarely relates to story content and evinces no signs of different cultures. Facial expressions are all over the place.

Amar Ramasar (Bernardo) and Yesenia Ayala (Anita)

The show seems to have cast dancers who sing a little. Except for Tony (Isaac Powell – small, but appealing tenor) and Maria (Shereen Pimentel – shimmering soprano), voices are second rate, any attempt at accents imperceptible. Hope of soaring vocal moments is dashed. This is partly due to Tom Gibbons’ sound design which never resonantly fills the theater.

An D’Huys’ Costumes are flat out ugly/unflattering. Androgyny rules. Don’t look for swishing skirts, high heels, or, in fact, any femininity except Maria’s shapeless dresses. Hair and wig design seems to mean shaving heads. (Mia M. Neal) Tattoos are so omnipresent, limbs simply look dirty except in close-up. (Andrew Sotomayer)

As to drama, forget being moved even in the slightest. Maria and Tony sing “Tonight” surrounded, then being literally torn apart (at absurd angle) by the two factions. (They are, by the way, sitting in the middle of a wet street at the time – on the pavement.) The otherwise touching scene is vaudevillian. Our audience laughs! Only a final parentheses, without video, hits home. It’s far too late.

Shereen Pimentel (Maria) and Isaac Powell (Tony)

Both Shereen Pimentel and Isaac Powell are sympathetic actors deserving of more worthy productions. Riff (Dharon E. Jones) has zero punk presence. Dancer Amar Ramasar (Bernardo) shows no more acting talent here than he did as Jigger in Carousel. Yesenia Ayala (Anita) lacks fire. The reliable Daniel Oreskes makes a pitch-perfect Doc.

When West Side Story opened in 1957, Jets and Sharks were punks, boys gone wrong who, one inferred, might’ve been rehabilitated before or after Juvenile Detention. These gangs are gleefully malevolent, filled with the kind of hate we unfortunately see around us so much today. Most will come to bad ends. This change is singular and understandable.

Director Ivo Van Hove is responsible for all of the above.

Let’s pray Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming film of West Side Story celebrates rather than disembowels source material.

Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Opening: Shereen Pimentel (Maria) and Isaac Powell (Tony) and the company

West Side Story
Based on a Conception by Jerome Robbins
Book – Arthur Laurents
Music-Leonard Bernstein; Lyrics-Stephen Sondheim
Choreography – Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
Direction – Ivo Van Hove
Broadway Theatre   
1681 Brodway

About Alix Cohen (790 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.