Controversies have dogged Ivo van Hove’s production of West Side Story, surrounding injuries, protests, and bold cuts to the material (the dropping of I Feel Pretty), but the final result turns a show with one of the greatest scores in musical theatre into something sleek, contemporary and brooding, intermission-less and relentless.
A video projection screen fills the entire back wall of the theatre. On to this is projected live footage from the stage, pre-recorded slow-moving dolly shots down city streets, character montages, and scenes filmed off-stage. The near constant explosion of blown-up imagery is almost too much to process – even before rain showers the stage.
Designer Jan Versweyveld also includes colourful, characterful sets of Doc’s shop and Maria’s sewing room. These emerge through small openings in the projection screen, though Van Hove still uses video to complete our view of them.
Shereen Pimentel’s tattooed Maria is full of self-confidence and brio. She has a soaring voice, even if the production overplays her naivety. Isaac Powell’s perky Tony is never completely convincing as a gang leader, but his comedic rendering of Maria is charming. Alongside them, Yesenia Ayala is a self-possessed Anita.
The actors are dwarfed by their towering screen selves; emotions get writ large. The moving empty street shots compress the bodies on stage and create anxiety. The video brings intimacy – the heavy breathing of Tony and Maria fogging a mirror that stands between them – and the violence becomes more vicious in close-up. Not everything works. A montage during America feels conceptually murky and the vividly saturated glamour shots of characters in some of the other montages feel out of place.
Van Hove’s production emphasises a divided America: the Jets are costumed and lit in blue, the Sharks in red. Though still referred to as Puerto Rican in the text, the Sharks are played by multiracial Latinx performers, while the Jets are of various races and ethnicities (not all-white as in the original). Both gangs include women and queer couples. They all sport tattoos and hoodies, blurring the distinctions between them.
In Maria and Tony’s flirtatious “balcony” scene, the two gangs form a scrum around them, pulling them apart. The couple resists, while a tattered Puerto Rican flag flies above them in the street. The rumble scene is much less effective and a scene in which a montage of police violence against black and white men is set to Gee, Officer Krupke feels like a major misstep. Even if the song is about young men caught up in broken systems, the use of images that evoke the Black Lives Matter movement and yet also include white men uncomfortably suggests All Lives Matter.
This is the first US production not to use Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography. In its place choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker creates frenetic energy using gymnastic flips and hints of breakdancing. Even though some of the elements feel strained, Van Hove’s production successfully refreshes this classic by treating it as something both monumental and mortal.