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Review: 'West Side Story' blasts back to Broadway — kinetic, bloody and modern to the core

Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

During its long gestation in previews, Ivo van Hove's bold reimagining of "West Side Story" generated the kind of heated division normally reserved for presidential politics in a year with Donald Trump.

Controversy was stoked by the jettisoning of Jerome Robbins' original choreography, the excision of "I Feel Pretty" from the score and the explosion of video in a production that some said threatened to turn the stage into cinema. How dare this Belgian auteur barge onto Broadway and tamper in his arty European way with an American musical landmark.

Also, what does Van Hove know about ethnic gangs in midcentury New York or the Latino experience? (Never mind that the tale, a riff on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," was created by four gay and bisexual Jewish guys, who weren't exactly experts on violence in the 'hood.)

There was additionally some static on the wires about the casting of the white ethnic Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks with a blended multicultural ensemble. Apparently, Broadway literalists need a strict division between white and brown to keep the story straight.

No, the early word was neither enlightening nor encouraging. But now that critics have finally entered the "West Side Story" fray, let me declare that I am firmly in Van Hove's camp on this one.

I didn't expect to be. Long ago, I was enthralled by Van Hove's deconstructions of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Henrik Ibsen at New York Theatre Workshop. But since this iconoclastic director won a Tony for his staging of "A View From the Bridge," he has been operating less like a daring artisan than a factory for a multinational company.

 

But this intrepid reworking of "West Side Story" marks more than a return to form for Van Hove. The production, which had its official opening Thursday at the Broadway Theatre, restores the vitality to a musical that can seem ersatz and lumbering when treated like a museum piece.

Arthur Laurents, the show's book writer, directed the last Broadway revival in 2009. It was a superficial update that called attention to the age of the musical in the way plastic surgery can exaggerate the ravages of time on a face.

With an engulfing video screen stretching across the back wall of a darkened and mostly bare set, Van Hove's production looks like it was born in the 21st century. And galvanized by a diverse company, the staging has a youthful vigor unmatched since "Hamilton" stormed the gates of Broadway.

The choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has replaced Robbins' ballet grammar with a dance language that is more streetwise in its stylish swagger. According to news reports, it has been jazzed up by Patricia Delgado and Sergio Trujillo, who were brought in to add more Latino flavor to the movement. But whatever the back story, the choreography is fresh, kinetic and, when not overly illustrative, transfixing.

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